#801: Why can’t other people care about school as much as I do?

I’m a 17 year old homeschooled dual-creadit student who attends my local community college. I have a 4.0 there, and I am part of the honor society and an officer in the Honors Student Organization. I’m not, at least not in by my family’s standards, brilliant, but I am smart. I always try to be a nice person and do good things, but I am worried that I come off as condescending and sometimes bitchy to my class mates. My grades are a large part of my identity because I am so focused on school, and because of that I have a reputation as an overachiever in all of my classes. I use my reputation as, at least somewhat, a defense mechanism. I have never had a boyfriend, had any alcohol,done any sort of drugs, etc. The people in my classes call me a baby because I don’t lie about being extremely inexperienced, and I don’t really mind that. I my be inexperienced, but I am not as naive as they seem to think I am. I use my inexperience as a reason I don’t throw parties when my parents leave me home alone for sometimes up to a week (they both travel for work). I don’t hide my grades from my fellow class mates; in fact, I share them openly. However, sometimes I worry that I come off as condescending because a lot of people make Bs or Cs, which I consider failing for me. I know that considering that a B is failing isn’t healthy, but school is my life and I don’t know how to let it go. I generally don’t understand why people don’t try hard in school and do their best. I understand that a lot of people have a job, kids, or both; but those aren’t really the people I’m talking about. The people I don’t understand are the ones that complain about doing poorly on tests and having to drop classes and then do to festivals on the weekend when they have homework. I also know that sometimes I can see the world in too much black and white and not take into account the environment somebody grew up in. I want to understand them better, but it is so much easier to call them stupid and write them off in my head as a lost cause. How do I learn to think of people as people and try to understand where they are coming from? When should I stop giving them leeway and say they need to step up and try harder? How do I not let my school define myself and my life when they are so important to me? How do I/ should I hold back on what my grades are because I may come off as a insensitive and condescending? Why do some people ignore their school and then freak out because they are failing?

Thank you for your time,
– The Overachiever

Dear Overachiever,

Because of your natural abilities and great study habits and supportive home environment, Bs and Cs are “like failing” to you. But to others, people who have to work harder than you, a passing grade can feel like the greatest victory! Or it can be a sign that their real priorities & interests are elsewhere, like, maybe they only do enough of the homework assignments to get the concept and then they stop and focus on other things, and their grades reflect that. You don’t know anything about someone else by knowing their grade.

I have five suggestions for you:

One: Stop telling your classmates what your grades are and don’t ask what their grades are. If they ask you about your grade, say “I did well!” or “I feel good about it,” and leave it at that. If they complain about their grades, you don’t actually have to comment or feel any kind of way about it. If you can make this a habit, you will stop coming across as condescending. If you want to celebrate your good grades, find a way to reward yourself for your hard work.

Two: Start a journal or notebook where you keep track not of your grades but of what you learned from each assignment or class and why that knowledge is interesting & important to you. Doodle in this notebook, fill it with quotes and highlighted passages. Write about what you wish you’d done better, and set goals for what you want to do with your next project. Don’t put any grades or talk of grades in this notebook, only things you are learning, things you want to learn, and goals for yourself as a learner. What can you do differently now that you took this class? What will you think about differently going forward? Why are you studying this subject & why is it important to you, & to the world? How can you ask better questions? Push yourself to get the most knowledge out of what you are studying & grades will take care of themselves.

Let’s talk for a moment about what grades are and what they are not. True story: I’m a bright bird like you and grades were very, very important to me as a kid. Then at some point they stopped being so important, for example, when I got straight As in French class and then I went to France and I couldn’t say a damn thing because I didn’t know how to risk and make mistakes and communicate anything important to me. At university, I got Bs and Cs in subjects that I use and think about every single day to this day, courses that moved me and changed my life. Sometimes I could have gotten a better grade if I’d just worked harder, it’s true, and sometimes “not an A” just meant that the course was challenging as hell and was full of other very very bright people. I really struggled with certain kinds of homework and studying, and as an adult I was finally diagnosed with ADHD. I’ll always wonder what my grades would have been like if I’d been treated as a kid.

Now that I am a college teacher, I can tell you pretty much for sure: Grades don’t measure your intelligence or even your knowledge of a subject. They measure your progress within a specific course at a specific school at a specific point in time, and they give the instructor feedback about what you are retaining and how you are applying it. That’s it. Hard work and strong abilities correlate strongly to good grades, but plenty of brilliant, insightful students don’t have the best grades but still learn from their courses. Their learning is just as important and they have just as much value & right to be there as a straight-A student. The second you leave a school environment grades will stop mattering at all, so, what do you actually want to carry with you from all this time you are spending as a learner? Find a way to record THAT – the insights, the lines of poetry, the moments that the universe snaps into sharp relief for you – and let grades be what they are.

Three: Be a beginner at something, in an endeavor that is not academic. Learn an instrument, sing in a choir, work on a theatrical production, or play a sport. Challenge yourself to do something that you aren’t already good at, something that you might even fail at initially, something with a steep learning curve, and something that isn’t graded at all. Extra bonus points if it is something social.

Four: Remove the word “stupid” from your vocabulary as a thing you say & think about other people. It’s an ugly word and it says more about you than it does about anyone you’d ever apply it to. If this is a word that gets thrown around in your family a lot, like, dividing the “brilliant” from the “stupid,” do your best to shed that thinking and to replace it with viewing people positively. That word will only ever hold you back from connecting with other people and from recognizing your own and others’ worth. If you find yourself thinking someone in your class is “stupid,” try a mental exercise where you replace “stupid” with five interesting or positive traits about them. If you don’t know anything about them besides their grades, add that to your mental exercise, like, “Oh wait, I don’t actually know anything about that person.” If you want to know something about them, ask questions, specifically, ask questions about subjects about which they are knowledgable and you are not:

  • I’m looking for some new music to listen to. Is there anything you’re loving lately?
  • What’s the best place to eat around here?
  • Did you do anything good this weekend?
  • What’s the best class you’ve taken here so far? Got any recommendations for great teachers?

Five: Make stuff.

Make an app, or a website, or a zine, or a painting, or a song, or an essay, or an article, or a dance, or a play, or a movie, or a music video. If you’re science-y, invent something or investigate a question. Crochet a scarf of a sweater. Make a sign for a protest rally. Whatever it is that moves you, find a way to make stuff and keep making stuff. Seek out learning opportunities and classes that let you make stuff. Make stuff that is janky and unfinished and then make it again, or make more of it. Making stuff means learning how to fail and then fail better. It means taking risks and solving problems. It means applying your knowledge. Sometimes it means collaborating with others, which can be a very useful and beautiful thing. It means that learning is an alive thing that you are using in your life and not just a conversation between you and your grades.

You can tell that something is off about how you + school + your peers are interacting, and you’re asking the right questions. Now is time to learn, but you can also go to festivals. Kiss people if you want to. Look around the world at the young people who are protesting and creating and changing it and resolve to be one of them. Make mistakes. Take classes and try things that are too hard for you. Forgive yourself and other people for not being perfect. Learn to say “I don’t know” when you don’t know. Realize that other people are universes who have everything to teach you.

Much love,

Captain Awkward




274 thoughts on “#801: Why can’t other people care about school as much as I do?

  1. I particularly like #3 because it sounds like OP is sticking to the areas where zhe is interested and skilled; OP is lucky that hir interests and skills are currently the ones that society rewards. OP can afford to avoid the areas where zhe is UNinterested and UNskilled—many of hir schoolmates, the ones with different skills and interests, can not afford to do that. I think OP might be unaware that there even are areas where zhe might be unskilled!

  2. I use an extension called momentum for Chrome, and today’s quote seems extremely relevant:
    “People are smarter than you think. Give them a chance to prove themselves.” — Tim Ferriss

    That said, LW, please do try and widen your horizons with some of the Captain’s advice, especially 3 and 5. From what I see of your letter, it sounds like you may be concentrating on things you’re good at and that’s great. Putting in lots of effort to achieve great grades is excellent, but I did come out of this letter worrying about how you’d handle failing. This is something that’s very common among people who have always done well academically and it can really screw you up if you don’t have any coping mechanisms when failure does – inevitably – happen.

    1. Yeah… I had no failure coping mechanisms. I was so good in literature/language classes that I was able to coast a lot. Whenever I hit a concept in math that I couldn’t immediately understand, I shut down. What was that study about kids who were taught to focus on “it’s important to work hard” rather than “it’s important that you’re smart”? Basically, I lived it: I was told over and over that I was “smart,” so the moment I ran up against anything that “disproved” that, I went to pieces. Whereas the kids who’d always had to work for good grades just kept on working and succeeding. Which, honestly, seems a lot “smarter” in retrospect than the way I was flailing around. It’s better to center your identity around “doing” rather than “being,” I guess, because “doing” gives you more agency in persevering and making better choices for yourself.

      1. Carol Dweck did many of those studies, and her book “Mindset” helped me in grad school. I love this comment and so many others! All these comments radiate an immense compassion for the letter writer and a desire to help and mentor the LW.

      2. Holy shit, yes, exactly! I went a long time thinking I was bad at math because I didn’t get it right away. In fact, one of my best friends is a genius – he *does* get things right away, but he studies less than I do, and I don’t even study a whole lot. And you know what? His grades are exactly the same as mine! I’m starting to actually love math (except for calculus, I’ll never love that) now that I’m in university in my business program, but yeah, it took me so damn long to learn that having to study doesn’t automatically equal me being stupid and not cut out for anything. I’m just a little lazy, and that’s okay! As long as I learn how to work when it really counts, I should be able to get by in life. I have a mind for numbers so that helps me too. My motivation these days is to not fail but it’s important that I focus on the positive things about me as well!

        Doing rather than being seems like a very smart idea. 🙂

        1. Exactly- I got really good grades all my life, and while I would work hard fundamentally I’m still a bit lazy since I’ve just wen naturallu gifted at doing school.
          You have to prioritise. For example in sixth form (high school?) I dropped a subject I was getting As in for one I got Bs and Cs in because th A subject (ring language) bored me to tears and I wanted to keep on doing art. I tried my hardest and I he a b and I was happy, as opposed to pasting through a full subject and erring an A I didn’t feel proud of.
          Grades teach you how to school, not how to human. They help you get a good uni and job which is awesome but that’s it. The sprains advice I spot on.
          Also uni is over half life experience and half education. Not to sounds like an old person (I’m 26) but uni and school are some of the most formative and easier par of your life. You should use the freedom to LIVE.
          Don’t sing boys If you don’t fancy, don’t play truant f it’s not in your nature. But go to festivals. Try new things. You will never -NEVER- be young again.
          My the caps advice is sound in trying thing you think you’ll be bad at. I always sucks at PE and hated it in school do in uni I took a risk and joined a karate class on my own. I decided to let myself suck. I didn’t identify as sporty so it was fine. And you know what? It taught me all over again how to listen and practice and learn and i got pretty good. I’ve taken it up again now I’m in full time work, starting from scratch and it’s the same.

          Tldr: school is important but a brief part of life. Living and memories are forever.

          1. I’ve heard that about high school and/or university being the best or easiest or more formative times of you life many many times, and I always found the idea horrifying and depressing. Thankfully it turned out to be completely untrue, for me at least.

            I had less free time and worked harder and had less fun in university than at any point in my life before or since. I wish it had been different, but that’s how my program was – the workload was far far more than any full time job I’ve ever had, or than grad school. I was glad to discover the ‘this is the freest etc time of your life’ was NOT a rule that’s automatically true.

            The best or freest or easiest time of your life is whatever it is in your life. It is never ‘too late’ to enjoy your life or explore new things or make friends.

      3. Hoo boy, that sounds like me. Just, everything. I could have written this. LW, find something you want to do, even if you think you’d be bad at it, and start learning it now. Before you get set in the mindset of: “I’m not the kind of person who is good at X.”

      4. Yes. Carol Dweck, as someone already mentioned. LIFECHANGING.

        My parents are still angry with me that I refuse to tell my children that they are “smart”. “How are they supposed to know if you don’t tell them?” SO FUCKING WHAT. They know that I think they are interesting, and that I like to see their art and hear their stories, and that I am proud of them when they try hard.

        1. Being smart is like being tall. Yes, it’s real, and it may be a precondition for some things (rocket science, professional basketball) and make life a little easier on you, but it’s not actually the most important thing, especially because you can’t change it and you didn’t do much to earn it. It just is. It’s what you do with it that matters.

        2. It was tremendously useful for me to have a self-image of ‘I’m intelligent, I can learn new things well’ when I hit a subject that initially made no sense to me (because programming is usually taught in bite-sized pieces and I need to have an overview first; also, there are an awful lot of people around who teach while not understanding basic concepts fully). I was close to giving up many times, I HAVE given up many times, but I’ve gone back because it fascinates me and I have so many skills that are one step removed, so I ought to do well.

          So I think that installing the confidence that you’re smart when you are is not a bad thing. Teaching them how to learn and how to work at problems and that initially failing means nothing is even better. Those lessons took me… somewhat longer.

          1. They *know* perfectly well that they are smart. I don’t need to tell them that for them to realize it, and it would actually be damaging for me to do so. That’s a major takeaway from Dweck’s research.

          2. @J. Preposterice:
            I just wanted to give my experience because it was really, really important for me. And because I see a lot of people with self-images of ‘I’m not smart’ who are every bit as smart as I am, but who – due to circumstances, bad teaching, or plain bad luck – have been discouraged from this self-image.

          3. @Friendly Hipposcriff: The thing is that you’re defining “intelligent” as “capable of learning new things,” which Dweck points out is a very healthy and helpful way of thinking of intelligence! Unfortunately, many people have a different definition: “being already good at everything and therefore not needing to learn anything at all.” If you have the second definition, identifying yourself as “an intelligent person” causes a number of problems:

            1. You become unwilling to try new things because of the risk of proving “unintelligent.”
            2. You defend your positions against new evidence rather than adapting to it.
            3. You view needing to learn and practice as a sign of weakness.
            4. You cannot ask for help for fear of exposing your supposed unintelligence.
            5. You contemn people who do ask for help.
            6. You believe yourself to be a fraud, leading to endless anxiety and self-loathing.

            Does it sound like I’m speaking from experience? That’s because I’m speaking from experience. Undiagnosed ADHD plus being told by every single adult in my life that I was “so smart!” with “so much potential!” wreaked havoc for me, leading me to drop out of high school after my second junior year. I have a Master’s now, but that was only possible because age and experience changed the way I thought of learning. It almost didn’t happen for me, though: the fixed mindset has real consequences for a lot of people.

            Here’s a link to Dweck’s “The Perils and Promises of Praise”:


            I use it at the beginning of all my composition classes to set a growth mindset from the start. For students who already have a growth mindset, it’s like, “Duh,” but for those who come in with a fixed mindset, it’s life-changing.

          4. @Friendly Hipposcriff with respect, this is pretty much the exact argument my mother made to me. She was wrong. My experience aligns very closely with Leonine’s, and eerily, disturbingly, frighteningly closely with Dweck’s research.

            There’s a big difference between “I do not directly tell my children they are ‘smart’ because research shows doing so can do a certain kind of damage, and holy heckballs do I recognize those scars all over my mind and don’t want to inflict them” and “make kids think they are not smart”.

          5. @Leonine @J. Preposterice

            Omg I hadn’t heard of Carol Dweck and her work before but this is life-changing. This explains so much about me. I wish I’d found it ten years ago when *I* was 17, but I’m glad I have it now… maybe I can change my mindset and get through the PhD program I’m currently floundering in.

        3. Oh man, and on top of that, telling your kids they’re smart – or even just letting them hear you observe it – can be such a nasty little seed. My hubs and I have big vocabularies, and sometimes we’ll forget and our 4yo will bust out something very context appropriate and multi-syllabic, and we’ll have a ‘creepy smart baby’ nervous laugh until we acknowledge that he’s around adults who enjoy words, of course he’ll pick up a few things. Then one day his preschool teacher pulls me aside and says: hey, there’s a problem, your son keeps telling the other kids that he knows things because he’s smarter than they are. We dealt with that and we’re still dealing with that (in different ways), but it was definitely an eye-opener.

          I remember being that kid who was SUPER academic and book-nerdy, very focused on my pet project of continuous intellectual achievement. And being alienated, and alienating, because of it. I don’t want my kids to grow up believing they’re smarter or better than everyone else because they know a lot of words or get good grades or whatever.

          I also remember thinking that a lot of non-academic pursuits were worthless, or that excellence in areas other than school was less valuable. If I could rewind time 20 years or so, I’d adjust my priorities – get more B’s, go to a party or two, learn how to be interested in the lives of others, and also move my body more. Now in my early 30s, I’m lamenting never having developed deep body competence, and all that’s cost me now.

      5. The reverse can be just as damaging. I was super accelerated in high school and my mom would tell strangers (completely unprompted) that it wasn’t because I was that smart but because I had excellent study skills (because saying I was smart would be bragging and that was Wrong). It wasn’t. I had awful study skills, but I brilliant and had no competing demands on my time so no one noticed until I hit a wall in college. Ideally I would have had my limits tested such that I developed study skills much earlier, but at a minimum I wish I had walked into college knowing organization and follow through would be a weakness rather than assuming it was in the bag.

        1. When I was at uni, I told my supervisor that I was struggling, and he just said “but you’re getting 80s”. While technically true, I was cramming for those and you can’t exactly do that for a 30-page dissertation, so as I predicted my final year was horrific.

          Now I am in the real world and actually working for 8 hours a day is alien and terrifying. I think school systems really fail “gifted” kids by letting them coast for 10+ years because the extra teaching won’t pay off in better exam results. And if we have any problems (like ADHD, autism, or whatever it is that makes me sleepy 24/7), then they don’t get picked up because “you’re doing so well!”

          School systems also fail struggling kids, of course. I’m beginning to agree with Pink Ffloyd about this one.

          1. I did really well at French at school, always scoring well over 90% in school exams and getting the highest possible grade in my GCSE (the exams we do in the UK after the final year of compulsory school). Because I enjoyed and was good at languages, I decided to take a French course at college for the next qualification up (A-level).

            It was a disaster. The college took one look at my grades and placed me firmly in the top set. Everyone else in my class was raised bilingual or went to French school or had lived in France. No English was spoken; even explanations of stuff we didn’t understand had to be done in French. Hell, we even had a French teaching assistant who spoke barely a word of English and that was no problem at all for my fluent classmates. I thought it would be fine for me too, since I could speak school-level French perfectly fluently. But this was a whole new level, discussing classic films and French literature in depth, stuff like that. A bit more abstract than asking for directions to the station or describing what I did in the holidays.

            I struggled so badly. I’d often get through a 90-minute lesson without really understanding any of what we’d discussed. But when I discussed this with my head of department, he insisted on keeping me in that class because my grades clearly showed that I was capable. I told him I wasn’t learning. He said I’d get used to it and that was that. I tried meeting with him again later in the term. Same result.

            Soon I started skipping classes, because there didn’t seem to be any point in attending. I did badly in the speaking and listening elements of the course, which were always my weaker side. Because of my natural linguistic abilities, I did well enough in the reading and writing exams to scrape a C overall. But I was told that an A at GCSE was equivalent to a D at A-level, so with my A* at GCSE, I guess a C showed I had made literally no progress at all.

            That’s how good grades can actually work against you.

          2. School systems DELIBERATELY fail struggling kids.

            When I was teaching Intro to College Writing (a thing that almost all Ph.Ds in the humanities do sooner or later, and a good percentage of those of us in the social sciences do as well), I taught for ONE semester at a school that shall remain nameless. I had a student who was Not Doing Well. I contacted him several times and he finally met with me.

            During the meeting he revealed to me that he wasn’t doing any of the reading because he “wasn’t able to.” When he was in high school, he explained, his English teacher had read everything aloud in class and then explained it. This was a student who was a fresher IN COLLEGE. He had never been asked to do reading outside of class IN HIS LIFE.

            Readers, I had assigned Foucault. I was not expecting students to completely comprehend Foucault, but I was expecting students to make a good faith attempt to read a chapter from Discipline and Punish and use the concepts — which I was going over in class — in their writing.

            I went to the department, explained that I had a student who was in WAY over his head, who needed to be in the OTHER class, not in my course. I also asked about tutoring resources.

            What did the department say? “Oh, well, he wrote a good enough essay, so we won’t move him. No resources. He’s on his own.”

            He dropped the class and I heard nothing more. I am still incandescently angry about how we failed this student. There was no reason why he couldn’t learn to read basic textbooks outside of class — and this was a skill he VERY MUCH NEEDED to get a college degree — but my class assumed that this skill had already been learned. And the department just did not give two shits about teaching him. Not even half a shit.

          3. Yes, I agree about failing gifted students (and non-gifted students as well). It’s not helpful when you never have a challenge, not only because you don’t get the life skills needed to study, be organized, handle failure, etc, but also because you get bored and don’t really keep learning. Let’s let kids USE their abilities and be pushed.

          4. Oh, man, yeah. And I’m saying this as someone who actually did coast right through college as well. I don’t know that I’m actually that brilliant in general, but I’ve always tested well and picked things up quickly, so I do very well in an academic environment.

            Real life, though…not so much. And I’m incredibly lazy, because I’ve always been able to get away with it. That has consequences IRL.

          5. Molly Grue, I hate that you are still angry, but I love that you care enough to be so pissed!

            I am freakishly good at taking multiple choice tests even if I don’t understand the material I am being tested on and it blew up in my face in 8th grade. I had somehow scored the highest on the exam the whole class took to see who was going to be in the honors pre-algebra class. The only problem was that I was struggling hard and was pretty much the weakest student in my grade-level math class (there had been talk of placing me in the “modified” version of the class to see if I could do better there)! My mom went to the school and asked them to not place me in the class because it was above my ability and my test taking skills were the only thing my score truly reflected, but was pretty much told she was an awful parent who did not believe in me and that it was unfair to remove me from the class and deny me the ability to truly shine!

            Yeah … about that … I had never learned how to calculate percentages, but the rest of the class (who were all coming from honors math) already knew it and the teacher refused extra help because I should already know this and she didn’t have time to waste on students who weren’t working to their potential. (Yeah … the same teacher who told my mom that SHE was a crap person who was holding me back …) It was awful. But I was in 8th grade – can’t drop, school wouldn’t move me despite my mother’s complaints. My mom tried to show me herself but at that point I was too worked up and anxious for anything to sink in. I felt stupid and hopeless and so stressed out. When my uncle came to visit, he happened by as I was struggling with homework, and in less than 5 minutes that man had explained how to figure percentages to me so well that I was immediately able to just figure it out in my head! He did it so quickly and matter-of-factly that I had no idea he was explaining something until I already understood it! But there is was – percentages!

            Molly Grue, you may not have seen Karma check in on your situation, but I got to see Karma have a say in mine so I hope this is balm for you! A few days later there was a test … that I passed! Not only passed – I was the first one to hand in the test, and, despite the ugly glare and the caution that I should use my extra time to check my answers, I had scored the highest! Instead of a star drawn on my paper or a “good job!” from the teacher, my mother was called in for a conference because I had obviously cheated. My mom met with this teacher and the principal while I waited outside the office … but once my mom raised her voice, I heard her loud and clear – she called the teacher out for refusing to give me extra help I had requested and said that if she had taken the 5 minutes it took my uncle to explain it to me, perhaps I could have learned it right away and not fallen further behind my classmates. It was pretty glorious!!!!!!!!

      6. I went through that as well! It was so frustrating because as soon as my grades started faltering (around high school), the phrase “you’re smarter than this” started haunting my life. I try not to fault the teachers, I mean this was way before any sort of study on this sort of thing so how could they know? On the other hand, god DAMMIT did I ever waste a lot of time in and after high school assuming I had suddenly become ‘stupid’ and would have to live with other people’s poor opinions of me FOREVER. It affected everything in my life, from the way I approached the subjects I was ‘most stupid’ in (I came to fear math, science an history, and only decades later did I find out that I fucking LOVE history, and math, although still not a favorite, isn’t nearly as scary as I remember it, and science although still outside my realm is fucking cool and lots of people do lots of fucking cool stuff with it and some of them are even awesome at describing it to people like me who aren’t gifted in that area), to the way I felt about myself, which led to serious self esteem problems, which led to *a serious problem getting jobs*. Like seriously, I thought I was worthless, and every shitty-ass job I got reinforced that because I took in all the negatives (“you’re not a team player”, “you need to be more outgoing”, “you need to step up your performance”) and accepted them as Who I Am, rather than I Am In The Wrong Field And Am Totally Smart Enough IN My Field To Succeed. I am now in my field (legal) and I may not be the best – but I’m very good. I also love, love, love my job, so even though it is hard, and even makes me deal with – ugh – math! – I continue to enjoy what I’m doing, day after day.

        LW, take heed from our stories! Do not base your feeling of Self entirely on how other people see you or think they see you or wish they saw you. Every single one of us on this earth is born to figure out What Am I Doing Here? and it’s a different answer for all of us. Just because you come from a ‘smart’ family doesn’t mean you should be in a ‘smart’ job if you feel more comfortable doing manual labor, for instance (and I use ‘smart’ in quotation marks to underline I do NOT believe that doing manual labor somehow automatically makes one less intelligent). Just because they all went into one field doesn’t mean you can’t choose another. It might be harder, and you might have to buck a lot of family pushback, but your life is yours, and you are RIGHT at that age where you’re about to start learning that a) sometimes you have to convince your parents of that fact and b) sometimes you have to work just as hard to convince YOU!

        I also see shades of myself in LW’s very sheltered view of life. I was sent to a private school, not for prestige but to get me away from a bullying situation (didn’t work, just cost my parents a hell of a lot more), but it was also religious, as were my parents, so my young years were very much shaped by people who all thought the same, believed the same, wanted the same. It wasn’t until I got to college – and this was way back when the internet was *just* becoming accessible to us ‘common’ folk! – and started interacting with ‘different’ people that I began to see, not just how sheltered I was, but how WRONG I was. Looking back, I had some pretty abhorrent beliefs about gays, about abortion, and about a whole bunch of other subjects that I’d never had any personal experience with and had no business having such firm opinions on which were based on nothing other than “what everybody else I know thinks”. I feel fortunate that this happened at such a formative point in my life, because I began to have my mind opened, and to realize that there were a lot of people in the world, and it was about damn time I started considering what sort of person *I* wanted to be when dealing with them.

        I still look back from time to time and shudder at how things *could* have gone. I could have chosen to keep a closed mind, to shut myself off from anything outside my own tiny world of experiences, and grown up to be… well, the kind of person I look at with horror and pity these days. But I chose, in case it’s not obvious, the open-minded route. Even then it was mostly previous training that brought me to that point. I had been taught that “gays are bad” (etc), yes, but I’d also been taught “be kind, because Jesus was”, and in the personal struggle that followed, that was what kept coming back into my mind. I decided that the only rational way to proceed was to try and imitate the guy that they all told me was the one that was supposed to be most important to me. It was a struggle, and even today I worry about what I might say that might be harmful to others, but at least in the end I can say “I tried.”

        And that’s my advice to OP – basically what CA said much better! – TRY. Try being friends with people, try new experiences, try thinking of something from someone else’s position, try imagining yourself in someone else’s life, try talking to people, try new and unusual foods, try things because trying things is what gives you the experiences that are going to help you connect with other people in life, and the more you try in more areas of your life, the easier and more natural it becomes to just do it without thinking about it!

        1. “You’re smarter than this” is the reason I couldn’t get teachers to help me. When I finally WAS able to swallow my pride and ask for help, they genuinely did not understand why I couldn’t understand. Never mind that calculus is a totally different conceptual ballpark from writing an essay about Shakespeare. So they would get frustrated and want to go help “the kids who REALLY need help,” and I would panic and just nod and go “Oh, yeah, I get it now, thanks!” And that is how I failed a trig semester exam.

          1. Gosh this rings bells. I struggled so, so hard with math in high school, and every time I asked for help because I absolutely did not understand the concepts, the teacher would ask “well which PART don’t you understand?” and I couldn’t break it down into parts because I DID NOT UNDERSTAND, and “the whole thing!” was met with “I can’t repeat an entire class just for you, you’re supposed to be smarter than this, just pay attention”.

            So not only did I not really know how to ask for help, but when I tried I was shot down. Learning how to ask for help (and ACCEPT it) has been one of the most important lessons in my life.

          2. I remain eternally grateful to my parents, who were wildly furious with several of my math teachers for failing to help me learn the concepts. I couldn’t ask for help — I still have terrible troubles asking for help — but my parents pounced on my grades (and, in a couple of cases, my teachers) as soon as they saw them so I didn’t end up digging myself a deeper hole. My father, a math minor in college, jumped me through the hoops of every goddamn problem in my textbook, and explained every one I got wrong until I started to twig to what I was missing. I willingly did this because I was furious with my Algebra 2/Trig teacher for telling my parents that she didn’t think I could do any better in her class.

            Got an A the rest of the year. In retrospect, I feel awful for the other girls in the class who didn’t have parents who could do this for them.

          3. Yep. I felt unable to ask for help in math (over and over again), go to tutoring, accept teachers’ offers of assistance, for years. All throughout high school and the one math class I was required to take in college. I fainted in the middle of my final group presentation during that final class. Mostly I just struggled through as best as I could, because asking for help was “wrong,” and I was “too smart” for that. These were things I “should have” understood immediately (and I believed that every other student did). I still have such a mental block on higher-level math (even though the more basic stuff is essential for my baking hobby). I was just so scared of looking “dumb,” and I wish that wasn’t something that had been part of my mindset.

          4. “you’re too smart to be on monitoring” was what I got when, as a gifted kid who was consistently skipping school I had to have teachers sign a form saying that I had been in class every period. That was for “bad kids” not for the “smart ones”. The same teachers, principals and guidance councellor who didn’t tell my parents that I had as good as dropped out of highschool and stopped attending for 2 months thought I was “too smart” to be held accountable for getting to class.

            Also bad for kids is being told they’re smart, being put in the “smart kid” classes, and realizing that they are the “dumbest” of the smart kids. It did a huge number on me that I’m still working through 20+ years later… school is designed for the majority of kids, but it’s hell on the outliers!

        2. “Just because you come from a ‘smart’ family doesn’t mean you should be in a ‘smart’ job if you feel more comfortable doing manual labor, for instance (and I use ‘smart’ in quotation marks to underline I do NOT believe that doing manual labor somehow automatically makes one less intelligent).”


          My sister wanted to take a year off to work before college because she “didn’t know what she wanted to do” (she did know “not college” though!). My parents emotionally and financially blackmailed her into going, so she did but didn’t study a STEM subject, so she might as well have not gone in their minds. She ended up racking up a bunch of debt for an education she didn’t want nor need (she did learn a lot and grew as a person, so she doesn’t regret it) that she couldn’t pay off with the skilled labor job she got later (which she loves and deep down knew she always wanted). My parents ended up paying her loans off and now she’ll pay them back (which is the least they could do, IMHO).

          Now they are so proud and keep saying that they encouraged her because we “need good people with her skills!” It drives me nuts since they spent YEARS bashing anything not STEM and actively worked against her.

          So I really resonate with what you said. (and the rest of it!)

        3. More agreement about manual labour!

          It took me a long time to come to terms with loving manual labour jobs (I love to work outside; I need 3-4 x 6 hours of hard exercise a week to be happy and getting that in my “free time” would suck). Both my parents had their doctorates, so I assumed university until that point was a normal part of growing up. First semester into university, I left due to severe depression and spent the next nearly ten years happily and un-depressedly landscaping for a company that gave me responsibility, autonomy, beautiful places to work, lots of neat project planning tasks, and an environment where I could be openly queer & poly.

          As an A-average geeky non-athletic girl in high school it never occurred to anyone to recommend that I do anything other than go straight to university. I feel so lucky to have figured out what worked for me; I didn’t get much help with that process along the way and had to fight through a bunch of internal and external classism. I am so so happy with the way my life has gone without a degree or an office job and wish everyone felt this sort of thing was a worthwhile career path instead of som sort of cautionary tale about not working hard enough in school.

      7. Thirding or fourthing this one. I coasted through all of school with mediocre grades but minimal effort. When I got to college I had no study skills. Zero. Zip. I’d been relying on my “natural smarts” and they weren’t good enough when I actually had to work at something.

      8. Yeah, my mum raised my sister and I with the mindset that it doesn’t matter what mark you got, what matters is how much effort you put in. I always feel so much more proud of an average mark for a subject I’m not good at that I worked my ass off for than a good mark for a subject that comes easily that I didn’t work for, and during my VCE (end of highschooling), I was a lot more relaxed than the vast majority of people my age because I knew that ultimately my grades don’t define me.

        I absolutely think that emphasising how smart someone is whilst they’re growing up is pretty much setting them up to fail, because like the other commenters have said, when they encounter failure or difficulty understanding something, they’ll just shut down. An ex boyfriend actually dropped out of uni this year because once he’d gotten out of high school and into an environment where everyone was as smart as him, but he also had to work to get good marks, he was left flailing and avoided pretty much every chance to study because he didn’t know what to do.

    2. I remember this hitting me pretty hard. I’m blessed with the sort of brain that really takes to academic thinking and at school I never really had to apply myself or work hard to get good grades, because academic type stuff just sticks in my mind. Fast forward to my Master’s degree when I finally got a failing grade on a piece of work I had worked damn hard for. I was furious. The tutor had commented that I had not really understood the purpose and remit of the assignment and all I could feel was angry that it obviously hadn’t been explained properly.

      Then I realised that I just didn’t know how to cope with failing academically. I asked myself what I could learn from it, and what I learned was that when I had a big, long-term piece of work like this that made up a large part of my grade, I should check in with my course tutor once in a while to make sure I was on the right track.

      So I agree with you. This is great advice and “learn to fail” can be wonderfully humbling and keep you aware of the fact that you are just as human and flawed as everyone else. And that’s kind of beautiful. I was quite similar to OP at school and I really did need to learn to fail.

      1. Learning to fail can be super important just because if you get used to the adrenalin rush of “I fucked up, I just failed, oh god,” then you’re less likely to get it and freak out when your response might matter–I have a friend who got in trouble for the very first time in grad school, when she was being actively monitored for “professionalism” and “ability to cope with criticism”, so the fact that she freaked out and melted down landed her on academic discipline. If it hadn’t literally been her first academic failure ever, she might’ve been able to cope more and put it in perspective.

        1. This. So important. I’m currently experiencing my first real academic failures as a postdoc. Thankfully I’m not melting down in front of others but I do have strong emotional reactions to negative feedback that I need to learn to deal with better.

        2. OMG, it really is an adrenaline rush! Wow, that’s new knowledge to me. I get that sensation at work along with a powerful impulse to hide it! hide it! make sure no one finds out I failed! and it has taken YEARS to painstakingly teach myself that actually the helpful thing to do at that point us to [gasp] ask for help.

      2. Because actually, “learning to fail” = “learning to learn.”

        I still remember when my little kid said, “I can’t make an S, Mommy.” I said, “of course it’s harder, it’s a tricky letter. So sure you don’t know how RIGHT NOW. But you can practice a little, and see how you go. And try it again. Maybe you’ll figure out which part you can do right, and then try with the part that’s tricky.”

        About 3 months later, she said, “Mommy, I practiced and practiced, and now I can write an S!”

        She was my “smart” one, and I’ve worried about whether she’d run into that same “OMG, I can’t get good grades! This is hard!” in college. She hasn’t mentioned it, so I don’t really know.

        Her little brother struggled more, but he’s had plenty of situations in which we’ve been able to say, “Look how hard you worked, and how it paid off in terms of what you know.”

    3. That, in spades. When my grades dropped sharply because I went from a system that catered to my strengths to one that caught me at my weakest point, I flailed. A lot. And it took me several decades to realise that I hadn’t actually learnt how to LEARN: I’d just managed to cram enough knowledge into my head to get by in a system that rewarded that.

      I’m in my forties now, and I have much better tools, and I know HOW I learn, so when I hit a system that’s designed in my disfavour, I have enough tools to learn things anyway, but this took many years of sweat and tears.

      It’s very easy for people to feel they’re stupid when they’re trapped in a system that works against them. And eventually, many give up and shut down and either do the bare minimum or don’t bother at all. LW, you’re lucky in that you know you’re clever; many of your classmates may come from different backgrounds and may have been told the opposite. That does not make them stupid; but please recognise they’re fighting uphill battles.

      1. Hipposcriff, I relate to this and your earlier comment a lot, though I know not everyone has the same perspective. Possibly the most important thing I learned in school, ever, was to go ahead and teach myself things when I realized wasn’t getting them. And this came about as a direct result of not bring taught to my strengths: otherwise I don’t know how long it would have taken me to realize that I didn’t already know how to think critically or teach myself new things.

        I do think this is one hazard of seeing yourself as smart: it can tempt you to assume you know what you’re doing when you really don’t. But it can also motivate you to change that situation when it becomes clear.

        1. For me, the most toxic thing has been ‘working harder’ when I had no idea HOW to work. I don’t think there’s much of a difference between ‘I cannot learn this because my strengths lie elsewhere’ and ‘However hard I work, I’m not determined/driven enough’ in terms of explaining why, after batting your head against walls, it hurts.

          (‘I’m stupid’ is toxic anyway, but ‘I’m more the [mathematical/artistic/practical/linguistic/whatever] type is, to a degree, not wrong for many people, so it’s hard to see when it switches into problematic territory.)

          But either way, if what you’re doing isn’t getting you results, a logical outcome is to say ‘it’s not for me, I don’t have what it takes.’

          That is not to say that I don’t think there’s a lot of useful stuff in Dweck’s theories, just that it’s not the whole picture, because sometimes ‘if I work harder, I’ll succeed’ fails; and at that point you need a Plan B.

          (Also, deciding that the teachers currently available to you aren’t teaching you enough and you need to strike out on your own? Scary. Something I definitely wish I’d learnt earlier.)

    4. Great insight re: coping with failure – I’m still working on this. Plus, outside of school there’s no immediate feedback for performance in the form of a grade, and therefore no clear mark of progress, so I often struggle with the sense that I’ve run off a cliff like Wile E. Coyote and it’s only a matter of time before I look down and my momentum runs out.

      Making stuff – even if you don’t want to call it art – is great practice for learning to fail and accepting imperfection. You have to grind and put in the time to learn the fundamentals, and then you learn to take creative risks and shrug it off when some of them inevitably flop.

  3. As someone who is trying her hardest to reach good grades in college and __always__ falling short of an A (because I get frustrated, give up, or allow myself to procrastinate when dealing with a difficult assignment), some of this advice applies to me, too. Grades won’t mean much in the working world – the quality of your work will matter. We students need to learn to see what we learned with each assignment, not the number that the number generator popped out when you were done with it. Doesn’t mean that envy doesn’t flare up when I see the people who learn more easily scoring A’s across the board, though, but I’m doing my best to put it all in perspective.

    I, for one, can say that in my first year of education towards a Bachelor’s degree of game art and design I’ve learned a lot of soft skills (persuasion, coordination, leadership, organizing, responsibility, generic people skills) and maybe a bit less hard skills (3D modeling, animation, scripting, etc). And I don’t mind – I only noticed how important it is to know these skills nobody will teach you (at least in our programme the courses are heavily geared towards technical skills).

    In the last year I finished 2 games, and made all kinds of things I never knew how to do before – and I had SO much fun, grades be damned. 🙂

  4. Ah. Yeah. Unfortunately I thought *exactly* like this at school. I had a slight excuse, in that I was alienated, never home schooled (so it was rejection from my peers without an easily recognisable “reason” to be so, such as naivety), and thinking of the others as “stupid” or beneath me was an easy way to distance myself from that feeling of rejection. CA’s advice is perfect as ever, but an angle you may not have considered: at some point in their life, everyone fails. Including you.

    Now is a really good time to get “stupid” out of your vocabulary, because the more mean and insulting things you think about your peers when they don’t succeed, the more mean insults you’ll have in your mental dictionary for when you fail for the first time. And eventually, you will.

    For me, it was my MA. I graduated with a merit, but, due to a massive nervous breakdown, didn’t achieve top marks. This meant no scholarship for doctoral work. No (immediate) future as an academic. No cast iron plan for what I’d be doing when the MA was over. I had stopped dividing people into “stupid” and “clever” long before, but I hadn’t eradicated the divisive system in my head, and so it was pretty impossible, especially at such a low period in my life, to not shuffle myself into the “stupid failure” category.

    I’m better now. I’m happier. I’ve moved countries and learned a new language, and a new instrument and how to draw. I have met people I’d never have hung out with before, and I liked some of them, and liked others less. I don’t feel like a failure. I don’t classify the people I meet as failures either. The thing is, as long as *anyone* you see is in the failure/stupid category, you’re clinging onto the other one for dear life, desperately hoping not to slip…

    And if someone had said this to me at 17, I’d just have gone “pshhh, that’d never happen to ME. I’m SPECIAL”… So I guess I was a bit of a lost cause at that point in my life, but I hope you’re not, OP. Aside from the damage you might be doing to your classmates, you’re hurting yourself with this, too.

    1. I was also very much like this, but with a little extra wrinkle. I started undergrad early and by 20 had graduated and was in MA program #1 which lasted a semester before I dropped out. The ghost of having dropped out of MA program #1 really haunted me and made the pressure to get top marks in MA program #2 incredibly important. However, I got my MA in my early 20’s in the social sciences with no real clue what to do with it professionally. It took me a little less than a year to get a “real” job post MA that wasn’t truly what I wanted to do but not a bad fit.

      After two years in that job, I finally figured out how I really wanted my professional life to look. So I applied to MA program #3, largely because it was the only way I knew how to press reset. While I don’t regret my choices and I am lucky enough to have support around my loans, if the lens I saw life wasn’t so limited through school – I probably could have figured out how to do this without getting a second MA. I could have explored overseas internships, applied to different types of jobs, saved money to travel etc.

      I think my story is a bit of a wrinkle on CA’s 4.0 in French but unable to speak on the street. I knew how to navigate academia. I knew how to allow it to get me where I wanted and how to be perceived as doing well. But I would still wake up at night in a cold sweat because I was scared of life after that. So in addition to the good things others have said, I want to add that there will come a point where “more school” really isn’t the answer. If present-day me were to talk to pre-MA program #3 me, the advice would definitely be “try allllllllll of these other things first, I promise it won’t be that scary”.

  5. I’m a former homeschooler and college grad myself-grades were super important to me, too. You know what I wish I’d done more of? Sitting places, drinking things, and talking for hours about interesting things with interesting people. I wish I’d slowed down a bit, taken 5 years to finish, rather than busting butt to get it done in four, because that’s what you’re Supposed To Do, and I wanted to Do School how everybody else did it, for once. The Captain’s idea about the journal is brilliant. Do it! I can’t imagine the types of things I’d have recorded if I’d done that in school.

    Enjoy this, OP. Relish it. Try to set aside the idea that school is something to win at, a competition. Learn and explore and savor and try new things.

    1. I have a natural talent for academic-type learning, I enjoyed learning about many of my college subjects, and often managed to get very good grades with much less effort than my classmates. OP, I ended up dropping out of school entirely. Even when getting an A is totally possible (which it isn’t always), the question becomes “is the grade worth the sacrifices I’ll make to achieve it?” The answer to that question will be different for every person, for every class.

      It turned out that the things I really cared about, the things I wanted to spend my time and effort on, the things I could sustain myself with day in and day out… were not school. Nor was school really preparing me for them. To me, it was not worth sacrificing time for creative projects in order to get good grades. It wasn’t worth missing out on beautiful experiences with my friends for grades. It wasn’t worth passing over awesome job opportunities for grades. I could have passed my classes and gotten my degree with honors and all that. But *I just didn’t care enough to do it.*

      But OP… you ask, ” Why do some people ignore their school and then freak out because they are failing?” There are so many answers to that. But I think a common one, certainly the one that applied to me, is that they DO care about their grades. But that doesn’t mean grades are the only thing they care about. You can totally have more dreams in life than you have resources to pursue, and even when you can see it coming from a mile away it hurts like hell to see a dream die. But that’s okay – part of having a full life is that sometimes it overflows a little.

  6. CA’s advice is very good.

    I am a teacher now, but I was a student for 26 years (total.) I was also grades-focused and when I got to uni the stress of getting straight As gave me anxiety and about 60 extra pounds. I got the straight As and let me tell you–they mean absolutely nothing outside of school. Unless you plan on being a student for the rest of your life, please go easy on yourself.

    Those people who go to festivals instead of doing their homework are taking care of their mental, emotional, and physical needs. They understand, as I did not, that school isn’t everything. Fun is a great stress-buster. Experiences beyond the academic widen your viewpoint and give you more to appreciate.

    But, beyond that, this is what happened to me: as a child I was very smart and very poor and very young. Mom put me in a year early because she couldn’t afford childcare. So imagine that you’re 13 or 14 and an 11 year old ragged-dressed kid with unbrushed hair is not only turning in her work before you, but getting better grades. I was bullied a lot. In high school I figured out to shut up about my grades and to always turn in everything second, but I spent several years in sheer misery because my own actions exacerbated the hand I was dealt. I reacted by thinking my brains were the most important part of me and I went around calling everyone else stupid. For years. My self-esteem and identity became entangled in my intelligence and grades.

    And, post college, your intelligence and your grades don’t really mean a lot.

    Now I am a teacher and I have a wide variety of students in my classes. I like almost all of them whether or not they get good grades. Some of them don’t care about school because they were taught, repeatedly, not to care by their life experiences. Most of those students are girls or people of color. Education is not kind to either. Refusing to do homework is one way to rebel against a system that sets out to grind you down. I do what I can to fix that, but by 8th grade a lot of kids’ minds are set about school and it can be hard to overcome.

    I have kids who are anxious about their grades, and who try their hardest. I can see the worry and concern and stress and I wonder if that’s the best thing for them. I wish we didn’t have so much standardized testing and so many grades that we’re required to give, but I have no power in this system. They’ve gotten to the point where the grade is what matters, not the education. They don’t care about what they’re learning. They just care if they’ve gotten a good grade for it. And when they’ve spent their formative years getting As for effort and then they get to my class, where they’re graded also on whether they know something and can articulate it, their grades plummet, as do their self-esteems. Their parents get mad at them, too.

    I give grades for a living. Here’s what’s more important than grades. Compassion. Empathy. A sense of community. Love of family, if they’re worth loving. Social skills. Tolerance. Respect. Identity. Problem solving. Resiliency. Culture. These things can be taught, but they’re not in the state social studies standards. They’re hard to quantify. Hard to test. And far, far more important to life as an adult.

    1. 26-year soul sister! I am now in a profession where you need at least two degrees (and three or four are not uncommon), so I don’t stick out like too much of a sore thumb.

      Thank you for the work you do, which is some of the most important in the world.

  7. My boyfriend is a community college professor, and the thing he absolutely loves about his community college students is that they’re coming in from all sorts of different places in life. Some of his favorite students are the ones who aren’t naturally academically gifted, but they’re trying their best and passing the course means a lot to them. And yes, some of his students aren’t trying all that hard because college isn’t really the right place for them, and other students are going to fail, treat that as a wakeup call, and study harder next quarter. Community college is a cheap and easy place to try and fail and try again, compared to a 4-year university.

    Here’s the thing about academia: there’s always a next level in the ivory tower. If you keep going with your education, you will eventually find a place that’s challenging for you, and while you’re there you’ll meet students who are climbing the tower faster and making it look easy. If your whole identity revolves around Being Good At School, getting past that place is going to be very hard for you (it certainly was for me, and I only pushed past it by finding things outside of academia to care about).

  8. Hello OP! I was once a 17 year old homeschooler going to community college and getting straight As. The Captain’s advice is really good. Here are a few things I’ve learned since then, and wish I’d learned earlier:

    No-one cares about your grades after you graduate. Study hard now so you can get into a college of your choice and get scholarships (if that’s where you’re headed), but that is the last time that the 4.0 is really going to do anything for you. Once you get into college, or whatever the final phase of your schooling is going to be, keep your grades high enough to keep your scholarships but otherwise don’t worry about it. (There are a few fields, like law, where grades matter after graduation. But they’re the exception, not the rule.) I graduated with honors and had that on my resume for about three years after graduation, and then dropped it. Because no-one cared when it came time for interviews. They cared about how I worked with other people, mostly. It was really weird to spend my whole life until my early 20s thinking that grades totally mattered, and then the next year find out that grades totally didn’t matter. But that was what happened.

    The ability to do really well on tests is actually really specific to tests. I’m married to a guy that I went to college with, and we were in a few of the same classes. He’s wicked smart. He usually knew the class material better than I did. And he’s very good at taking tests. But I’m even better, and I got higher grades. Not because I was smarter or because I studied harder, but just because my brain works exactly the right way for taking tests. It’s not a skill that’s been useful anywhere else in my life. Don’t confuse ‘can take tests well’ with intelligence, because intelligence comes in a million forms and tests only measure one of them.

    Most jobs are way less structured than school. It’s hard to go from an environment where you know exactly what is expected of you and when (homework due this day, a test on this material on that day) to a job where you’re told to make sure these things happen, and then left to yourself to figure out what success looks like. It’s been hard for me. It turns out the ability to decide for yourself what success looks like and how to get there is really important to life – way more important than grades! The Captain’s suggestions #3 and #5 are helpful for getting there.

    Good luck, and have fun! The next few years are going to be pretty awesome for you.

    1. I was also surprised that grades didn’t matter when I was job hunting after graduating university mama cum laude and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. I ended up with a job in another university. Do you know what won me the job? They were really impressed with the extracurricular activities I enjoyed during my summer break before senior year, which happened to dovetail nicely with our department. Neither my boss nor any of the other interviewers cared at all about my grades.

      So go and explore all the other things you are interested in learning about. You have no idea how any one of them could change your life completely.

      1. Actually this might be a bit terrifying. Being able to logic really well and dig facts out of your brain for up to 3 hours at a time isn’t useless. Despite being basically calibrated to exam, I do okay in the real world. You sound like you can actually work and do coursework as well, LW, and the people I know who do best in the real world always handed in their homework on time.

      2. Yup. Especially IQ tests. Someone else in this thread said quite rightly that they only measure a specific type of intelligence but I usually go one further and say that all they measure is how good you are at IQ tests. And I’m someone who used to administer IQ tests as part of my job.

        1. ‘all they measure is how good you are at IQ tests’ – the inventor of the original IQ test is quoted as saying almost exactly that. He got a little pissed off in later years as to how they started being used. He originally was using his test more like a placement test to tailor a kid’s education to where they were. And he explicitly said that their mark often improved after they’d had access to good education.

          1. Which kind of makes me wonder why he called it “intelligence quotient,” which is a bit misleading given the use he intended. Or maybe someone else renamed it that?

          2. I can’t nest further, but from what I understand he didn’t see intelligence as a fixed and all-defining trait that indicates the top of your potential, but more like a summary of your mental skills.

            If you believe that by practising problem-solving skills or logic or language you can develop your brain and get more mental skills, then it makes more sense. It depends how you define intelligence.

    2. My father recruits to graduate programmes (very good ones) & has always says he won’t take people with a First (top marks in UK degrees, 4.0 average?) and nothing else that they’ve done, as they turn out to be poor employees. Instead he looks for people with a 2.1, 2.2 or even a 3rd, with either extra-curricular uni activities, or a part-time job, or something that they’ve worked on outside uni (or a First with these too). He’ll also look at what they did – someone who got a 2.1 or 2.2 because they took a course in something that wasn’t their strength, or that was challenging is a much, much more desirable employee than someone who played it safe, did everything in their comfort zone, and put grades above anything else.

      (TL;DR? Employers want experience of DOING stuff, not just studying stuff, ideally)

  9. “Grades don’t measure your intelligence or even your knowledge of a subject.”
    “The second you leave a school environment grades will stop mattering at all”
    LW, I cannot stress these words in particular from the Captain enough. As someone who also both enjoyed school and generally did very well in school, I can assure you that the second you graduate, your grades will mean nothing. You will forget things from classes you got an A in but don’t apply your knowledge to regularly. You will better develop skills from classes you struggled with over time. And more importantly, employers of both blue-collar and white-collar sorts of jobs Will. Not. Care. about your GPA. Even the ones that say they do….trust me, they don’t. They want to see how you apply your knowledge in tests during and after interviewing you. They want to know that you’ll be a pleasant person to work with. And when you stop receiving grades on everything you do, you’ll need to find another way to be fulfilled with yourself and who you are.

    It’s not that the work you are doing is entirely worthless – if you are learning things from your classes, then the work will help you build skills you can take into the workforce and life. But the grade attached to that work won’t make or break anything you do in that subject area in the future.

    On another note, you’re 17! Now is the time to go to festivals and have a blast. I’m really not too much older than you are, and I have way, way less time to go out and have fun than I did even a year and a half ago, so enjoy it while you have it. Make memories, laugh and enjoy yourself with friends doing something you love to do…or something that’s maybe a little crazy, something you never thought you’d do. You’ll remember that more fondly in 10 years than your grades, trust me. You’ll build character and learn life skills that you just don’t learn in a classroom. Go for it, and best of luck!

    1. Seconding the advice to have FUN.

      You really are only young once. Nothing is guaranteed, and nobody knows what’s around the corner. At seventeen you feel immortal, but there are so many ways your life can be thrown off course.

      Grades can never hug you, tuck you into bed, make you feel so much joy that it seems as if light might come shooting out of your fingertips. Life should not be lived by numbers. Colour outside the lines, sing off-key, and pay attention to things that you would normally ignore.

      Remember – the story of your life may have thousands of pages left, or it may have only one. However long your story will be, shouldn’t it be more than just a list of numbers and letters?

      1. THIS. I had a ton of fun when I was younger and really surprised myself when I got into my thirties and just… didn’t really want to do wacky stuff any more. I have a job and house that require most of my weekly spoons and I’m actually OK with that. If I hadn’t had so much fun as a young adult I honestly think I would have massively regretted that later on. You just don’t have the opportunities you have now when you’re a Proper Adult.

        1. “I had a ton of fun when I was younger and really surprised myself when I got into my thirties and just… didn’t really want to do wacky stuff any more.I have a job and house that require most of my weekly spoons and I’m actually OK with that. If I hadn’t had so much fun as a young adult I honestly think I would have massively regretted that later on. You just don’t have the opportunities you have now when you’re a Proper Adult. ”

          Yes! My late teens and twenties were awesome and terrible. I worked hard, made friends with completely different kinds of people, had adventures and lovers, made mistakes that hurt myself and/or others, and just lived the total dickens out of my life.

          By my late twenties, I wanted to settle down into marriage, parenthood, and career. Maybe it was my conservative upbringing, maybe just me, but it felt right, and I enjoy it. Some of my friends from that period are still having adventures and very happy.

          It’s having an informed choice that’s the thing. Trying out different friends, loves, and lives, picking, then making your peace that what you’re getting is worth what you’re choosing not have. It keeps me from being bitter about the what-ifs, and the glamorous lives on my Facebook feed.

    2. As a person who’s done interviewing and recruiting for a Large Tech Company that’s famously hard to get into, I’d like to add a couple of datapoints and corrections here. (I’m doing this anonymously, because I don’t want to identify the company.) First, we do in fact care about GPAs; they’re one of the few solid datapoints we have to separate out the resumes that come in, to prioritize who we actually give phone interviews to. And so there’s a rough line where above that we’ll generally immediately give people a phone interview, and a range where we’ll probably interview but they don’t skip to the front of the queue, and a line below which we probably won’t. This much of the myth of GPAs is in fact true.


      Those lines are not where the LW might think (nor where I, being a person a lot like the LW when I was their age, would have thought). I probably shouldn’t give hard numbers because they vary from school to school and the like, but I can say this: From a good, challenging school, a 3.5 will generally get you in the door as fast as a 4.0 will. In that range, we care what else you did.

      At which point, we then interview you, and have some real data about how capable you are and how you are to work with — so the GPA becomes pretty much irrelevant.

    3. Definitely agreeing that you should have fun! Just, it’s also okay if your version of fun isn’t what everyone tells you it should be. It’s okay if festivals seem Loud and Terrifying and Do Not Want. But that still leaves you with learning how to write fanfic or make excellent playlists or joining a knitting club (and knitting, for me, was and is an A+ venue for making mistakes because it’s low stakes and I can go back and fix what I messed up or leave it if I don’t want to) or realizing that sitting with your classmates and talking with them about the things they find terrifyingly awesome is amazing. It’s okay if you’re not having the time of your life right now – sometimes things take a while and get better when circumstances change – but, again, try what you can when you can!

      1. Thiiiis. (Tried to leave a comment to the same effect but got errors. Might show up way below this thread or not at all, sorry Mods.)

        If LW is familiar with the general attitude around this site it’ll probably be fine, but if they’re a one-shot, or if they’re at alike I was at 17, then a lot of this “have fun!” advice may be met with growls and sound a lot like societal pressure not to stick out by being smart.

        LW, I’m quite certain nobody here means to say “don’t be so smart, you HAVE to party like others”. So if that’s what you’re reading please try to re-read it without that shade. If you can.

  10. Captain, I love your advice. LW, for me to get over focusing on grades took being bad at Guitar Hero for a while and also learning to knit. Both have been great for me, in different ways.

    Also, once you’re out working, you will rarely have “grades” to tell you how well you’re doing or (helpfully) to know how you compare to those around you. So I especially love the journal idea, to help you become practiced at tracking your learning, and skills, and dreams, and growth. Best of luck to you!

  11. This is really good advice–I too was a very bright, very socially unskilled student once, the youngest in my class, the inexperienced one. There’s not anything particularly excellent or virtuous about happening to be really good at school unless you plan to stay in school as a learner forever. Even staying in school as an educator isn’t going to necessarily be a good fit for such a person, because excellence in information acquisition and regurgitation without excellence in the other things that being an educator demands isn’t going to make you a good teacher.

    Those skills that you lack, LW, are sometimes called “soft skills”, and they are the things that are actually going to help you succeed in the world, rather than in school, so working on acquiring them starting now might be a really good idea.

    Just as there’s no particular virtue in happening to be good at school, there’s no particular moral failing in not being good at school or in not wanting to do school at all. That can be hard to understand if, as often happens with students who don’t have a lot of opportunity or inclination to socialize or to pursue extracurricular activities, school is pretty much the ONLY thing you do and the ONLY thing your parents prioritize. Plenty of the people that you are currently stigmatizing for being B or C students, LW, are probably going to go on to live very successful and happy lives. It can be easy to lose sight of that when you’ve been told repeatedly that academic excellence is the only excellence and intelligence is the only valuable thing about a person.

    So yes–I’d suggest trying something you’re not good at, that takes a lot of work and has a steep learning curve. You most likely really need that challenge, because most things in life with a big payoff take a big sustained effort. It’s good to internalize that fact now. 🙂

  12. LW, the Captain’s advice is wise and compassionate. The very best thing you can do for yourself is realize that NO ONE in the adult world cares about your marks in school. What matters is what you learned and retained, not the surface layer of what grade you got for doing it. That includes some distinctly non-academic experiences that I wish I had had when I was your age: Get a job, fall in love, try something that you think you’ll hate or that you have no aptitude for. If everyone only enjoyed doing the things they were good at, karaoke bars would go out of business in a month.

    Heck, borrow some clubs from an athletic friend (or borrow the friend — socialization!) and go golfing. It will get you outdoors, it will let you work at something that you definitely won’t be good at starting out, and it’s a couple of hours or more where you aren’t in front of books, worrying over marks.

    School will end, sooner than you realize, and you have a long life yet to live where the only grades that matter are the ones you give yourself. Start learning how to do that now and you’ll enjoy the journey a whole lot more. Best wishes!

  13. Captain, your idea about the learning journal is BRILLIANT and I want to find some way to make my students do it in all their classes.

    1. Elle, I don’t know at what level you teach, but the “weekly letter to grandma” (or whoever) can be a fantastic tool at lots of different ages. It’s a fairly straightforward assignment: explain, without using jargon, what you learned this week. It’s great for making students think and put pieces together conceptually, and it’s great for letting instructors see where everybody is, what the major misconceptions are, etc. I like grading it on a two-point scale — 1 point for handing something in, 1 more point for having clearly made an effort. No penalties for getting things wrong.

      The class I help teach has a semester-long lab project, at the end of which they have to be able to explain, at a level appropriate to “friend/relative who hasn’t taken this class,” what they did and what they found out. It’s quite illuminating. My favorite part is the moment when a student who has been struggling suddenly sees all the pieces click into place relative to each other — “Oh, that’s why we did that!”

  14. I’m another college teacher, and I can say that the Captain’s advice is SPOT ON. Listen to it, LW!

    I teach a lot of students who are used to getting straight As in high school, and my courses are usually the first ones in which they are not getting an A. It can cause a massive identity crisis, one that I think you, LW, are kind of priming yourself for. I spend a lot of time every week of every semester talking students through these crises, and what I say is a lot like what the Captain is saying to you: your grade isn’t meant to define who you are. Grades are meant to give feedback on how well you understand or apply specific knowledge. So much goes into a grade that it’s more than “being smart” or “working hard.”

    1. Urgh, that crisis. When I started 6th form college, I got a mediocre grade on my first assignment, because I’d never done anything like it before and didn’t really get the format. Getting that mediocre grade sent me into a huge depression spiral, which then led to me doing pretty badly throughout college… took me until I started an LL.B. at university three years later to figure that I could still be proud of things that weren’t absolutely perfect, and I still felt bad on the two or three occasions when I got a reasonable pass instead of a good grade throughout the NEXT three years.

      What I’m trying to say is, stuff the entire culture that gives rise to this.

      1. In fact, I just the other day had a conversation with my Dad about my final MSc award, in which I told him (incorrectly – I hadn’t read the exam regulations thoroughly enough) that I had just missed a distinction but would get a very good pass. He said it wasn’t the end of the world. So maybe it’s not just “culture”…

      2. Yeah. When I started university the first time, my parents had picked my major, and I was good at the various component skills so I thought, enh, whatever. The important thing for me was getting out of the house, and if they hadn’t picked my major they probably would have tried to prevent me escaping, so I went along. It turned out that out in the world, amongst my peers, I had better things to do than a major I wasn’t invested in. So I ended up dropping out, and that led to a shame spiral about myself that lasted for several years. My parents said some pretty horrible things. It took me a long time to get back into school. And when I did, I studied something I liked, and ended up going to grad school and then doing doctoral work. I don’t work in that field–I ran the numbers and didn’t like my chances–but I loved it while I was doing it.

        But that brutal feeling of knowing that the only important thing about me was my intelligence and that it had failed me–that stuck for a while. And for a while, it really did poison everything I did. But I got over it–succeeding helped a lot. But so did getting older and getting some perspective and extending some kindness to my past self.

    2. I hit this identity crisis in high school, with my AP US History class – got a 61% on my first essay test. SIXTY ONE PERCENT. I cried and cried. Fuckin’ DBQs, man.

      But I buckled down, like most of the rest of the kids in my class, and I worked my ass off, and I may have only gotten a 4 on that AP test (not enough to get me any college credit), but dammit if I didn’t EARN that 4. And, more importantly, I learned that I *can* fail, literally fail, and that life goes on; and that natural talent is no substitute for hard work. Those are lessons that have served me *much* better than 3 credits of Basic Math (AP Calc) have, over these years.

      1. I have a story I’ll occasionally tell people about my “Best A,” which sounds really weird, but it was the time I proved to myself that I wasn’t just coasting on inborn precociousness. I completely blew a midterm in Renaissance Art; it was not my major, just a class I was taking to fill out credits, but the potential to lose my scholarship was always hanging over my head, and it scared me. When the final came around, I thought I’d be a wreck, but instead, I had the equivalent of the Rocky theme blaring in my head for two solid weeks. I memorized and quizzed and reviewed – my roommates thought I had been replaced with a pod person spouting dates about Italian painters.

        And for possibly the first time in my life, I didn’t get an A, I *earned* one. And I saved that study guide and keep it in my memory box with the postcards from my overseas trip and my worn-out dance shoes, because it matters a lot when you find out what it feels like to work that hard for something.

  15. If you were homeschooled for most of your life, maybe you don’t have the experience of your love of learning being slowly suffocated by school. A lot of people do have that experience. Schools bear a strong resemblance to prisons sometimes, and for some of us, they can feel like hell.

    I hated school. It took being out of school for a few years before I remembered that oh yeah, I actually LOVE learning–what I don’t love are assignments, tests, being forced to spend time on stuff that bores me to tears, and having to constantly jump through arbitrary hoops to prove that I was learning the “right” things in the “right” way. (Yeah, I’m bitter.)

    1. High-five! I’m currently suffering from the “RIGHT thing in the RIGHT way” learning curse after going back to learn a new career in college. A lot of my lecturers are EXTREMELY picky – not only deadlines (which I understand), but also file naming, and naming of elements within the file, has to be perfectly structured in the way they want it to be, and the smallest typo will cause a mark reduction instantly. It’s making me grind my teeth. Nobody in the working life thus far (worked as a web designer/editor) EVER placed this much emphasis on these kinds of things.

      It’s hard to stay curious when your love of learning gets smothered by silly things.

      1. I teach and I desperately want file names done X-Way because:

        I am my own secretary. I file, copy, order, organize, distribute, track, and update all of the things. And I professor.

        Our classroom management system is clunky and makes keeping track of shit hard.

        It also does not do automatically what many systems in many workplaces will do, in terms of searchability and such.

        I have a lot of students with similar names.

        I have dreadful ADHD so any organizing of any crap takes three times as long for me as anyone else.

        Apparently some people feel about putting names on papers and in files the way you feel about file components, which means downloading a batch of papers as a zip file means documents I’ve graded but no one to give a grade TO.

        If the files don’t come in the Right Way, it means extra HOURS (multiple) of my time on admin crap that I could spend on other, better things. It’s the difference between getting home at 5:30pm rather than 7pm or 7:30pm on a class day.

        Believe me when I tell you, the things that make you crazy about professorial pickiness make me crazy x 18. But until I have a secretary in my area or better file management, it is what it is.

        It’s the least fun part of my job, too. I promise. (The prof takes off points because if they don’t, students don’t, and they’re back to hours and hours of time.)

        Also, I tend to be a witch about it because there ARE some jobs that MUST be done The Right Way. Students might not end up in those fields, but if they do, then they have had some practice with me, at least. The first time a security lieutenant won’t sign in your media for class because the memo for it came in 20 hours in advance rather than 24 was a sharp lesson in how that works, for me. At the end of the day, I had to give the boss what she wanted, and to he’ll with my good reason for why it should be otherwise.

        1. Amen. This. Seconded. At my university, we mark papers blind. Every year, I receive an unsigned paper (or obscure filename, etc) in my stack of marking, and in the time it takes to work out whose it might be (+ arranging a meeting with the student to confirm) I could’ve just marked the darn thing. Not to mention getting through the next in the pile. A minute of inattention from the student can easily turn into an extra hour of admin for the prof.

        2. Yes, yes, yes! +100!

          I take as much time dealing with bad file names, chasing down students who didn’t sign their work, re-naming files to fit my conventions, and dealing with cranky students who don’t understand why they didn’t get a mark (because I didn’t have your NAME!) as I do actually marking.

          Follow the convention, if for no other reason than a happy TA is a generous TA.

      2. These things only seem silly to you because you’ve not ever taught university. This might not be true of you, but I assure you 85% of your classmates, left to their own devices, would turn in assignments called “Paper.docx” or “$Subjectpaper.docx” for EVERY. SINGLE. ASSIGNMENT.

        I got a lot of pushback from my students because I didn’t allow electronic submissions, but I was A) a doctoral student in a department that didn’t allow us a copy quota, so I would have had to pay for every page of their work I printed, B) using the campus email system which was balls at everything, C) did not have enough time in my day to mess with the headache that is electronic submission when 85% of your students are going to submit everything with the title “paper.docx” and no name in the text of the file itself.

        And, as mamacita says, there ARE jobs that have to be Done A Certain Way Even Though It’s Silly/Pointless, good for you for not having had one (yet).

        1. It makes me bazoo that my fellow students (I decided going back to school at 37 was a great idea) can’t follow the naming conventions, and I’m only filing these papers for my own reference. If I had to grade them I’d probably be pulling my hair out.

        2. No name IN the file? We’ve always had to do a header on every page with the course number, assignment number, and name and student ID number. o.o I finished last semester and by then it was just reflex to do the header as soon as I opened a new file.

          1. I TAed a course for a prof who allowed electronic submission and when time came to record marks, for every single assignment, I’d realise that 1/3 of the essays had no name on them. I’ve never liked e-submission for the kinds of courses I taught, but that really cemented it. I used to get exams back sometimes with just a first name, which is NOT HELPFUL. No lie, I had a class of 15 once with 5 Andies. So first name only is not helpful at all.

          2. @mamacitaconpistoles AND, oh my god, don’t get me STARTED about the horrid perversion of footnoting that undergraduates tend to use. I had one class that, after me explicitly setting aside a whole class period to talk about what is and isn’t acceptable formatting among other things for a university essay, half of them STILL did EXACTLY the thing I told them not to do. I took that stack of essays home, flicked through it, realised what was going on, and started crying.

        3. OH my god, and wiki naming conventions? People. Do not call your profile pic “ProfilePic.jpg” and then get PISSY when SOMEBODY ELSE uploads THEIR pic to that filename. When I gently link you to W:NAME, do yourself a favor and READ IT.

      3. Others have said it in more detail, but oh god, have mercy on your instructors and get the naming conventions right. We literally beg you.

      4. While it’s already been covered how important this is in academia: If it helps any, I’ve done web design and editing for federal agencies, and I can promise you some of them do put that much emphasis on exactly that kind of thing.

        (I also know people who handle the reformatting of, e.g., credit card statements. Due to how files are handled, the “smallest typo” in the names of those things will not cause a mark reduction, it will cause hours of trouble and a radstorm from management.)

        Not silly. Not silly at all.

        1. Surgeons
          Flight checklist writers
          Copy editors
          Fact checkers
          Court reporters
          GIS operators in excavation/construction
          Scene of Crime Officers
          Forensicso specialists
          Haute couture stitchers
          Mars Land Rover landing calculators.

          The professions that demand meticulous attention to detail that come to me off the top of my head.

          As you say. Not silly at all.

          1. Meticulous attention to detail is kinda how I roll. I’m a health and social care inspector. Which unfortunately requires both meticulous attention to detail AND a good bigger-picture perspective, which is not one of my strengths. But yeah, loads of jobs need attention to detail.

          2. You forgot Funeral Directors (the right funeral for the right person, death certificates, etc.) and Cemetery Administration (where people are buried)

          3. Medical coders, and anyone else who touches health-insurance claims

            (The ICD-10 coding system has distinct codes for “left knee replacement” and “right knee replacement”. Don’t try to bill your patient’s insurance company for two simultaneous left knee replacements.)

      5. I’m intrigued – as an editor, if you received a file titled “document” through an electronic submission system that was hard to trace who it belonged to, surely that would cause you problems too?

        Personally I think “learning to use organisational file naming conventions” is a SUPER important skill. I never understood people in OldJob who would get terribly offended at the concepts of eg naming things starting with YYMMDD. It doesn’t matter what the convention is, or even if you agree with it, in pretty much 90% of workplaces it facilitates the work, and for freelancers, putting their names in the document title is just good practice, no?

    2. Same here. Gifted student, so I got all the “you’re so smart!” accolades and had the predictable response of disdaining anything that didn’t come easily, but ALSO haaaaaated academic learning. HAAAAATED. I got a near-perfect score on the SATs, and then I dropped out of college three times and still don’t have a bachelor’s degree. I changed jobs and fields so many times that I called myself a professional dilettante.

      Then I figured out that I have a circadian rhythm condition that makes it impossible for me to function on what most people consider a normal schedule. Where you sleep from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., I sleep from 2 a.m. to 10 a.m. Going to a class or a job at 9 a.m. is like going to work in the middle of the night. No wonder I was miserable and non-functional: I was chronically sleep-deprived and exhausted.

      I got out of the corporate grind, took part-time jobs with flexible hours, and did freelance work on my own schedule. (I also took some online classes and learned that I hate academia even when the schedule’s flexible.) Now I’m coming up on my ninth anniversary in a job that I love, and I’m successful and happy.

      How I landed this job, incidentally, is by reading a lot of books, paying a lot of attention to the social media presences of people in my chosen field (which let me both make valuable connections and learn valuable news), and throwing everything I had into my first foot-in-the-door opportunity. No one cared the slightest bit about why my resume said “NYU, 1996-2000” rather than “NYU, BA in Mathematics”–and my career field is totally unrelated to mathematics anyway!

      Being smart-by-standardized-testing-definitions has zero to do with ability to survive academia. Ability to survive academia has zero to do with ability to excel in the real world. And no matter how you feel about school or how your brain works, unexpected outside factors can be totally disruptive in both great and terrible ways.

      Just be you, LW. Don’t worry about who other people are. They all have their reasons for doing what they do, and you need to learn to trust that their reasons are pretty decent ones–at the very least, no better or worse than your reasons for doing what you do. You don’t need to understand why other people do things to treat them with respect and let them go their own way. It’s hard! A lot of what we think of as “intelligence” is really about making quick assessments and judgments, and naturally you assess and judge people because it’s the skill you have. But there are other skills that matter just as much: compassion, patience, admitting that your initial assessment might miss some useful data (either because you overlook it or because it’s not made available to you), being willing to change your mind, evaluating on the basis of “good enough for this purpose” rather than “perfect”. You clearly have the academic skills nailed, so take some time to work on those other ones.

      1. “Where you sleep from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., I sleep from 2 a.m. to 10 a.m. Going to a class or a job at 9 a.m. is like going to work in the middle of the night.”

        Wait, the fact that I have trouble functioning if I have to wake up before 10 (and that getting up at 8 or whatever for morning activities is torture even though most people I know have jobs that start at 8 or earlier) is actually NOT a personal/moral failing that I should beat myself up for and go into a huge shame spiral about whenever it comes up in conversation?


        1. Yep, I’ve got it too. Only discovered it, via ppl on Twitter talking about it, this past summer. I’m 49, and worked for many years at jobs that started as early as 7:45 a.m. The worst.

          I think I may also have a more-than-24-hour circadian rhythm, but I don’t know how to find out for sure. I can manage a “good night’s sleep” maaaybe 2x a week.

        2. Yes, my brother has it too, it’s called Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome and he usually does not get sleepy before 5 a.m.

  16. Love the advice to invest oneself in a hobby or skill with a steep learning curve! Learning to fail, to fail with relative grace, to overcome knowledge humps and acquire difficult to attain skills, that’s really hard to do for many of us who were the “smart” kid in school. Learning that failing at an activity isn’t failing at personhood, that struggling through something which doesn’t come easy can pay off. Ungh. So hard, so worth it.

    I don’t necessarily recommend a driven person take on something bigger than they can handle, though. Don’t overwhelm yourself, just challenge yourself to do something you’re scared of, or haven’t considered trying before. Start small. Sometimes things that look easy can be super hard if they fall outside one’s comfort zone. I’m looking at you, design class and rock climbing club.

    1. I remember picking up dancing in college. I was one of those people who’d never really had to deal with failure in life because of being a good student, but I failed so many times at this. (We had an annual Final Performance in which the better you were, the more dances you got to perform in. The second year [SECOND year] I got cut from two entire sets.) I found some of that failure devastating and thought about dropping dancing and never going back. But looking back, it was good for me, and several years later with many more years of dancing under my belt, I’m glad I stuck with it. I’ll never be amazing, but I love it and that’s what counts. And learning to fail was in retrospect a painful but helpful lesson. (Not that you have to keep your hobby for the rest of your life; I had others that I’ve picked up for a few weeks or months and then dropped, and that’s fine too. But this one stuck.)

  17. I feel like it might be helpful for LW to examine why they feel like they should be either telling other people to try harder, or letting them slide. Maybe LW is acting as a sort of mentor to some of their classmates and has been explicitly asked for that kind of input. But if not? It’s not LW’s judgement to make, and it seems like making that judgement anyway is sucking quite a bit of their mental energy, and I suspect they’d be happier if they stopped trying to make it.

    Maybe living in a home environment where their grades are everybody’s business makes LW feel like everybody’s grades are their business? I dunno, I am guessing and may well be completely off the mark. But maybe if LW figures out what’s going on there, it would help them move away from that way of thinking. Or maybe they should focus on the positive stuff the Cap suggested, filling their head with better things so there isn’t space for analysing other people’s performance any more – whatever works best.

  18. LW, I love the Captain’s answer to you, and I wish I’d had it at your age. Your community college sounds a lot like my high school, and it never really challenged me to edit and polish my work. It also taught me to be self-effacing and get along with others. But I was really not prepared to struggle, to fail, to not be among the top students. Suggestions 2 and 3 are a great way to deal with that, to help you learn to challenge yourself and be your own coach.

    About school being your life: I get that. Your life is probably scheduled around school and extra-curricular activities, plus things you do with your family. Even if school literally becomes your life–if you pursue a profession in teaching and learning–you will need to add balance to your life, making time for social bonds, activities you enjoy, taking care of your body and mind. Perhaps think about what does this for you now, and how you can set that up for yourself in future living situations.

    One thought about being “brilliant”: there are so many ways to manifest and apply intelligence and skill. When you do encounter brilliance in action, value it and perhaps try to figure out how that person hones their talent.

    Finally, I hope you can take advantage of your community college also to get to know your professors and learn about their lives. See if they can help challenge you or offer advice based on their experiences. Many of them may be extremely busy, but fostering the talent of their most motivated students is also one of the rewards of the job, and you may find good mentorship there. (Decades ago, my dad also got amazingly small class sizes–five people in an organic chemistry class at a community college! Take advantage of such personal opportunities if you can.)

  19. I was one of those kids in school that did the homework for class A during class B and so on till it was done before I even left school that day. Problem was I test really well and can write decently so I coasted through my entire 12 years. Then I got to college. I only needed one math class in order to graduate, but it was way beyond what I’d had to take in school and I was in real danger of failing something for the first time ever, meaning an actual F and not a B or a C. I shoved my pride into a bag and went to get a math tutor from the library learning center. I squeaked a freaking C out of that class and that is the proudest I’ve ever been of any grade I’ve ever had. I earned that mofo.

    What I’m trying to say, LW, is grades only mean what you think they mean. I coasted into A’s and B’s so they never really meant much to me. My siblings had to work their asses off to get B’s and C’s so they were proud of them. If you work hard and make A’s then that’s awesome for you, but someone else being proud of their B’s and C’s does not make them slackers.

    Food for thought.

  20. Dear Overachiever,

    Wow, this letter could have been written by me when I was your age, except I wasn’t homeschooled. I did, however, attend a local community college as a dual-enrollment student and get very good grades. I was also very inexperienced, and school was the most important thing for me.

    Here’s the deal: why is school so important to you? For me, it was partly a way to please my extremely demanding parents. Also, because my grades were so good, they made me feel better about myself, and I used that to compensate for feeling lackluster at other things. It didn’t matter if other people were more attractive or cooler or had more fun, because I was The Smartest, as evidenced by my grades. The problem with this is that it ties your self-worth to something that is largely outside your control. The school you go to, the performance of others in your class, and your professors’ expectations all affect your grades. Events in your life (family troubles, relationships, illness) also affect your grades. And that’s normal, because you’re a human being. Instead of seeing grades as absolute measures of your intelligence, think of them as measuring your hard work at one subject. They are not the end in itself – they are the means towards the end (the end being your really big dreams).

    Another important thing is to realize that you are not as smart as you think you are. Breathe it in. Live it. Embrace it. You have a 4.0 at a community college as a 17-year-old – so what? So do hundreds of kids that graduate from my high school every year. I go to an Ivy League university, and let me tell you, the experience has been wonderfully humbling. Do you know how many 14-year-old engineers we have? How many brilliant essayists, journalists, mathematicians? And they all somehow also have a perfect social life, play three instruments, and preside over at least five clubs. They’re exceedingly smart. Probably smarter than you and me. And there’s thousands of other students just like them in other universities all around the world. That’s a difficult reality to accept when you’ve been “better” or “smarter” than everyone around you all your life. But once you do, the pressure is off! You don’t have to be the smartest – you can never be the smartest. But you can be smarter than you were yesterday. So stop measuring yourself against others and start trying to be better every day. You can excel at that.

    Best of luck!

  21. This bit struck me: “When should I stop giving them leeway and say they need to step up and try harder?”

    LW, honestly? You shouldn’t do either, because it’s none of your business.

    There’s a lot of other stuff here. You don’t know their story – you don’t know if they’re mentally ill, if they’re situationally depressed, if they’re carrying huge emotional loads for their friends-group, if they have developmental trauma, if aliens live in their attic and keep them up all the time, if they have emotionally and psychologically toxic relationships that mess them up an eat their functioning capacity, had someone die recently, lost a pet recently, have chronic insomnia, or if they happen to be a werewolf. It’s possible to be best friends with people and not know these things, because they’re actually largely invisible, let alone when you just happen to be going to school with them.

    But above and beyond that: it’s none of your business. It’s not your job to pass judgement on their lives, it’s not your job to decide when they are or aren’t Doing Things Right. This is an area where there is just about no reason for you to have an opinion, and it’s definitely an area where you should keep in mind that your opinion is totally and completely irrelevant.

    You’re seventeen, and by your own admission inexperienced, which may mean you also don’t realize just how ill-equipped you are to make those judgements even if it was any of your business (which, remember, it isn’t). This is actually something you’re a beginner at. You’ve been schooled at home by, from the sound of it, a relatively insular family with rigid values: other peoples’ lives are as yet an intellectual exercise for you and trust me, most of the time when you intellectualize someone else’s life, you get it wrong.

    You have, from the sound of it, been raised as noted with a fairly rigid and school-achievement focused set of values, and it’s a natural human impulse to want to split people into Good People and Bad People. Those categories feel safe. We want to know what exactly the conditions are to put people in each box – largely because then we know when WE might be risking demotion to the Bad box. It’s also not a great impulse, because there are six thousand boxes, they go all over the place, and they mostly change position depending on what people want. And unless someone’s actually harming you, or a danger to you, it’s not your job to figure out which box they go in. Their life is their responsibility and their domain. They get to make those choices, and prioritize for themselves.

    The Captain and the commenters are mostly right: there are very few situations wherein your grades matter. All of the ones where they do matter have to do with staying within the academic world – so if your dream is to become a university professor, your grades keep mattering a bit more. If you want to do major research in one branch or the other of knowledge (science, history, whatever), your grades keep mattering a bit more. But other things matter, as much or more, even within that academic context.

    And what makes you happy, or fulfilled, does not necessarily make anyone else happy or fulfilled. So what ends up being worth more, or less, to each person, is going to be different for them than for you. Family story: after his first career and an ugly divorce, an uncle of mine went back to school for biology, wanting to work with the Ministry of Forests. His first semester he worked his ass off, exhausted himself, and came first in at the top of the school. And he went “OH, okay”, and very deliberately backed off, did less work, and got Bs for the rest of his degree. Because he didn’t *need* As. He needed the degree, the certification, the practicum, and the job. He took advantage of the time and energy he saved to improve social relationships, relax, do things he actually enjoyed, spend time with his family, and go to weekend music festivals.

    (That’s one reason why people go to those festivals on the weekends when they have homework, by the by: because they’re enjoyable, enriching and make their lives a better experience.)

    The point being, my uncle didn’t *need* those As. To get what he wanted, to get the life he wanted, to get the job he wanted (which he still does, at a pretty senior capacity and with significant influence on his field, actually), he just needed to do Well Enough in school. So he spent his energy accordingly, spending Enough of it on school to get what he needed, while spending the rest on things that made his life better.

    Having been a lot like you, once upon a time, there’s a significant chance this is making you side-eye me a lot, in the sense that it’s hard to imagine how having better grades would NOT have made his life better. Which is what I meant above when I said that, when it comes to figuring out how people (including people who are very different than you) work and how lives can work, right now you’re a beginner. A very intelligent beginner, but I was (for instance) once a very intelligent beginner at snowboarding and eventually gave up because the “bruised knees : fun” ratio was so high on bruised knees and so low on fun that it wasn’t worth it.

    The first step to learning to see your classmates as people is giving up on the idea that you need to assess them. Maybe Classmate A is in fact a total slacker who is authoring all his own difficulties in the class because he decides to smoke pot on the weekends instead. So? Still not your job to assess his performance in the class. You’re not his teacher, his mom, his life-partner – at this point you’re not even his friend. You’re just a kid in a class he takes. Trying to figure out how to better put him in the Good Person box or the Lazy Person box is exactly the opposite of seeing him as a person. Knowing if he has a pet, what kind of coffee he likes, his opinions on your local government, who his best friend in elementary school was, if he’s an outdoorsy type, his thoughts on, I dunno, skim-versus-whole milk – those are all steps to seeing him as a person.

    The Captain gives really good practical steps. Just, you know: also remember that judging your classmates is not your job, and how they choose to arrange their lives is not something you’re called on to assess, and unless they offer it’s not even any of your business. Because that’s important.

    1. ^ This.

      I was not 100% this way when I was younger, but I did extremely well in high school and have multiple degrees. The last couple years I’ve traveled a lot and have worked in fields that I was either completely out of practice in or in which I had no prior experience whatsoever, and that’s really helped me combat a lot of the ingrained ideas I had about who’s good/bad/undeserving/lazy/smart/successful/whatever. Even now I’m just starting to realize how narrow my world was and still is.

  22. One question is, why do you need to have a conclusion on how to respond to this? It’s not your problem to fix motivation in others, and I doubt they are asking you to *do* anything. So saying “suck it up buttercup, the only answer I have is ‘try harder'” isn’t something you need to say. If they do ask, you can shrug and say “my next move would be a time budget ir a trip to office hours” and move along.

    In the privacy of your own head, you.can redirect yourself to another pattern. Quit asking “why do they, why don’t they, why do they, why don’t they?” These are things the people who you are talking about might not even know how to answer.

    Instead try noticing, and observing, and asking different questions.

    Well, they do it this way, and they do it for a reason. People usually get something from the things they do. Is it habit? A change from high school learning? They’re not that into school but think they should be? They really need breaks, but breaks for festivals means less time to work, and that’s the trade off? Griping is a social activity a lot of the time?

    What does fulfill them and make them happy? What is the experience of going to school like for them? Do they have a plan for themselves or are they on a journey with no fixed destination at the end? Are they learning, even if their grades aren’t great? What do they like about learning and school?

    In terms of actions, focus on shared values, not these differences. No one need to know your grades. Your grades say less about your aptitude than what you have actually *learned* anyway. Redirect! “Oh, I did fine on the quiz! Hey, what did you think of the documentary we saw for Soc. class? I was [verb] about [noun].” “I dunno, tests, I studied. I’m more geared about the final paper. Have you picked a topic yet? Do you think Prof. Higginbotham will let me write about climbing accidents?”

    And one way to not seem condescending or bitchy is to ask questions in sincere interest. What in particular is hard about that? What do you want to do next time to avoid that? I think the TA seems really nice. Have you talked to them? How did you do at this in high school? What is different?

    Good luck! Unlearning the habits of assuming everyone cares about the things you care about in the same way is tough. But the fact that you want to is great!

    1. The “griping is a social activity” comment reminded me of something: when I was a student, I was often doing well, having to work REALLY hard, and massively stressed out. I needed sympathy from my classmates, so even though I was getting 90-100%, I would still be in class saying things like “Ugh, this paper is a massive pain in the arse” or “if I never have to read about vicarious liability ever again, it’ll be too soon”, or “Can you BELIEVE he’s making us do this on top of everything else? It’s completely pointless!”. It didn’t mean l couldn’t do or wasn’t doing the work, just that I needed to share the difficulty of the task.

      Of course, it’s still not okay to look down on people if they ARE slacking; but also, the slack-o-meter might be off.

  23. Lots of good thoughts in the comments here.

    About this question: “When should I stop giving them leeway and say they need to step up and try harder?”

    My answer is: never. Unless they specifically ask for your input, don’t say they need to try harder. School isn’t a competition, it’s a place to learn to be a person. Part of how you learn about the world around you is through academics, but not all of it. If the people around you seem lazy and like they’re missing great opportunities, whatever – that’s a decision they’re making. Let them make that decision themselves. If they’re struggling, with something, you could offer to help, but don’t patronise them, and remember you don’t know what’s up in their lives.

    Another data-point for you: I got a good degree from a very good university, and mentally crashed out once I left and spent a year working for not much more than minimum wage because I didn’t have the energy to make any kind of long-term decision or to hunt down the kind of job where you have to do a complicated multistep interview process. There was so much exhausting difficult stuff: dealing with angry customers gracefully, keeping stuff running in a chronically under-staffed place… In a totally unglamorous job. Many complicated things, none of which school taught me, all of which thousands of school dropouts do a great job of and get no recognition for. Institutions and power structures can be stupid, but if you think of people as stupid it mostly just stops you seeing them clearly.

    1. And before you say anything, it’s worth assessing if it’s, not just honest, but useful. “You need to try harder” is as useless a statement as “You should put down the right answers.” If someone actually asks for help, or says something like “I don’t know why I’m failing so badly at this!”, then you can suggest something useable, something solid – like “I use this study guide, maybe it would help you?” or “maybe we can meet up before class for conversation practice? I have to use something before I can remember it,” or “I revise in the library because it’s easier for me not to get distracted.” Good advice isn’t what, it’s how. Otherwise, it’s just telling them things they already knew.

  24. “When should I stop giving them leeway and say they need to step up and try harder?”

    I haven’t read the Captain’s reply yet or any of the comments because I wanted to respond to this question immediately:
    IT ISN’T YOUR JOB TO TELL OFF THE CLASSMATES YOU PERCEIVE AS INFERIOR. If you don’t have anything nice to say to them, then just hold your tongue. None of the judgemental remarks you have for them are as insightful or helpful as you apparently imagine; all you’re actually doing is kicking them while they’re down.

    1. Other than that, most people (we’re talking about young adults here, right? Ok) are aware they need change in some area, are aware when they could use some help or need to dedicate a certain amount of effort into a certain area; the problem is, that change is rough, accepting your weaknesses and getting help when you need it is rough, and getting rid of old habits, boy is rough! (If LW takes the Cap’s advice about learning a discipline that doesn’t come easy, the LW might probably learn this for themselves).
      Fact is, saying “you just need to try harder” without knowing a person’s circumstances is not only a great way to come of as quite a bit mean and entitled, if it is true that the person being critized only needs to apply themselves more, saying this to them could mean mirroring a lot of their own self loathing and jerk brain, just saying :/

  25. LW, that was me. A lot of me. Straight A’s, fancy schools, the lot. At some point in the process I learned that no matter how impressed people were with how amazingly I had done on a test, they actually *liked* my best friend, the chatty, popular one more. And being liked counted a whole lot more when it came to other people offering to share opportunities for more success.

    The captain had good advice for how to interact with diverse people in general, but I get the idea from your letter you want to fix the slightly off feeling when dealing with a few people, not necessarily become a different person/everyman who gets along with everybody yourself. So while you’re going out in the world learning to judge people by their standards, not yours, I would also work on finding *your* people. Work on knowing who you are and what kinds of traits you actually like in people. There is no right answer here. It took me until college to realize I would never really fit in with liberal political activists or people who tell me I can solve problems by believing in myself (maybe this works for you, if so, yay!). MY people were more likely to be clever, cynical and straightforward, because I felt I could be more open with them. Hang with the people you’ll never understand, widen those perspectives and gaze upon those far-off horizons, but above all to thine own self be true. =) Good luck!

  26. Oh LW. My heart goes out to you. From nearly half a lifetime away I look back at myself at your age and want to give her a giant hug. I was someone who received most of my praise from my parents based on how successful I was in school. It was great when I was 12, but when I hit 17, my academic program was so difficult (not dual credit, but between my tests and my diploma, I managed to earn about a year of credit at my chosen university) and I had taken on so much school based extracurricular plus a job that I was unhappy and unpleasant and clinging to the idea that I was better than all the other slackers who were obviously having far more success with their social lives and the whole being happy thing than I was. My first week out of my parents’ house and in my college dorm, I had a meltdown over all I had already taken on before I’d ever gotten there, and I called them and broke down and told them I wasn’t okay with being this unhappy for another four years, and I was sorry if they were angry that I wasn’t what they wanted me to be. They were very confused – their praise of my success had been well-intended and not meant to be a commentary on my usefulness to them – and I dropped quite a few of my commitments with their blessing.

    I wasn’t a straight-A student in college. In fact, I had a semester where my GPA was embarrassingly low. But I was happy. I learned more being less academically successful than I did making myself miserable in high school and earning great grades. I was that kid who went to festivals on weekends and drank alcohol and I learned who I was and the people I like and the types of friends who are a waste of time and fostered a love of physical anthropology and discovered that it did not extend far into osteology because I barely passed that class. I discovered that I had anxiety attacks in math class and had been having them for years. I took a sociology of gender class (which my dad rather adorably and ignorantly dubbed “the study of nothing,” thanks Dad) and it broke my brain in the best way and kept me up at night doing extra readings while I ignored my cognitive psych textbook because it turns out I don’t like that very much. And I learned that my value isn’t just that I earn really good grades. That discovery has been invaluable to my life.

    I’m not saying you should go out and fail things, and I totally agree with the captain about all the things that could be good to try. But I also want to urge you to look at what you know about you. Aside from being really good at school, what do you like? What subjects are not just the most difficult and look the best on a transcript, but what do you like? What breaks your brain in good ways and makes you squeal like a dork in lecture and keeps you up at night so you can learn more? What is your value to yourself besides your ability to make good grades? How do you contribute to your classmates’ and potential friends’ learning experience besides just making clear that you think they don’t measure up?

    I hope this clarifies some of what you’re missing for you, and I hope you go have great adventures and screw some things up and fail and learn, learn, learn great, wonderful, brain-breaking stuff. Good luck!

  27. LW, you sound competitive and driven. Do not let that go!!!!!!!! Grades are just a bad choice for it.

    Example: some person A comes up to you in the hall carrying like ten books to class; you’re only carrying two. A’s like, “check out how many books I’m carrying. You’ve only got two books there, huh? Guess I won this time.” And you’re like, 1) I didn’t sign up for this competition, 2) A really cares about working out and being strong and I only care about being healthy enough to carry my two books, and 3) A just made me feel like a loser for “losing” a game I didn’t even want to play.

    You’re being A. Stop talking about grades. Your classmates don’t want to be in a competition with you for grades because, among the other good reasons talked about above, that’s just not how they operate. And you shouldn’t be making anyone feel like a little bit of a loser.

    Now, what I recommend is not actually necessarily finding something you’re a beginner at, it’s finding something where everyone else REALLY WANTS TO WIN as much as you do. For some people this is college; for some people it’s a sport; for some people it’s becoming the best goddamn artist the world has ever seen or winning hackathons with your excellent app. And you keep doing that thing even if you lose at first.

    You don’t have to neglect your grades–far from it. But I suggest you consciously channel that fire and drive to another outlet. Stop talking about your grades; as the Captain said, you’re there to gain knowledge. Commiserate a little about how hard you work. AND, again, don’t lose the competitiveness. Find a competition where others are actually really competing, and try to win against THEM.

    1. Oh yeah. By the way, I homeschooled for just a year and a half. I returned to school in seventh grade and it took me YEARS to learn social skills again. Now I have relearned those social skills through a lot of hard work, and I didn’t even realize they were missing until I had them again. This is, in fact, the way to do it: in school, messing up a little like you’re doing right now, asking someone’s advice, and doing better. Chin up if your chin’s down.

  28. This is excellent advice, Captain. 🙂

    I was homeschooled and it was great for me. I know from experience that sometimes peers will put homeschoolers on the defensive. (A college student said to me in orientation week: “Homeschooled? Doesn’t that leave you without social skills?” I said, “I have enough to know how rude that question is.”) Sometimes you can feel pressured to “prove” you’re not uneducated. I know those feels.

    But the Captain has good advice here. Good luck.

    1. I’d say that this is often less a matter of peers putting homeschoolers on the defensive, and more a matter of some degree of mutual hostility between homeschoolers, and non-homeschoolers. I’ve had more than a few barbs directed my way from homeschoolers to the effect of “You went to public school? Wow, you must be a dumbass.” Some of these were directed at me personally, some were snooty comments towards all public school students while I was around, some were concealed in a paper thin level of subtext.

      The point is, there’s a level of background antagonism between the groups, and this can affect how things get read. After a few comments about how homeschoolers have no social skills, a public school friend making a lighthearted joke about a particular social flub a homeschooler does can easily be read as way more hostile than it is. Similarly, just talking about how your grades are generally good as a homeschooler to a public school student can easily come across as a jab at the public school student’s intelligence, even if that wasn’t at all meant.

      LW, you were homeschooled. You’ve outright said that you think a number of the other students are lazy slackers. You have good grades, and you say as much. I can practically guarantee that people are reading in a subtext of “As a homeschool student, I’m smarter than you inferior public school swine.” I don’t know whether you actually mean that, and I’m going to assume you don’t. It’s just that you’re close enough to some well known hostile tropes that the jump is easy to make. I’d recommend keeping a bit of extra distance from them.

      1. *another homsechooled person raises hand*

        It had not previously occurred to me that there is [sometimes] background antagonism between the groups going both ways, but that makes a lot of sense and is something I will have to think about more. I think I can remember interactions I’ve had/seen that probably fall into that category.

        But I wanted to highlight what anamardoll said about pressure to “prove” that you’re not uneducated, which I think is really on-point. Because it’s not just social skills that homeschoolers can be put on the defensive about. For me, there were well-meaning people anxiously asking my college-aged self if I knew about evolution. There have been people that I’ve barely met earnestly telling me that they think homeschooling is a form of child abuse. And there’s a whole set of remarks about The Real World. (Usually, in my experience, various folks concern-trolling my parents, within my earshot, on the theme of “You can’t shelter them forever, what will happen when they hit the Real World? They aren’t going to know how to cope!”) For me, I particularly felt as if I needed to “prove” to extended family that my parents had made the “right” choices about schooling. To this day, I’m pretty sure one of my relatives thinks that I’m queer because my parents protected me “too much” from peer pressure/bullies. (Apparently everybody who goes to public school turns out straight? /s)

        I believe you that homeschoolers can be antagonistic towards folks who followed a more conventional schooling path. I’m not trying to minimize that or to justify the times when homeschoolers are massive egotistical jerks. But I also don’t think it’s entirely fair to put both kinds of antagonism in the same category, because at least right now, to be homeschooled is to be in a minority. It wasn’t until I was old enough that schooling wasn’t a big topic of conversation anymore and I could just choose to never reveal it that I realized how much pressure I had been under to be a “model homeschooler” and/or to explain about how the term “homeschooling” covers a huge range of experiences and what has been true for me is not true of many and vice versa. How what worked great for me did not work great for one of my brothers, etc.

        Now I’m older, I can choose how I engage. The other day, talking about my baby’s possible future education, a friend said something othering about those homeschoolers’ poor social skills, and I felt comfortable coming back with, “Gee, thanks, [friend]!” But it’s a huge relief to be able to just go about my business and dress how I dress and talk how I talk and do math poorly and/or well without reflecting on All the Homeschoolers or My Parents’ Controversial Choices. I know it might sound like I’m making a mountain out of a molehole since in many ways homeschoolers can be considered a privileged minority; but I can honestly say that for me personally, coming out as homeschooled has often been more loaded than coming out as queer/gay married and had more immediate ramifications for how my interactions with a person might go. I’m sure there are situations where people have to consider whether to reveal that htey have been through the public school system, but I doubt that it usually presents the same kind of constant background buzz.

        1. The numerical minority thing means less than it seems like it would though. For one thing, a lot of the homeschooling is geographically concentrated to the point where the local minorities represent a bigger chunk of the population, for another, as you pointed out there are a number of very privileged home schoolers, and they are often the ones with the clout to influence how homeschooling is seen. A disproportionate number of interactions are also going to be in the areas with more home schoolers for obvious reasons, and as someone in a bit of a geographical bubble of homeschooling who wasn’t home schooled, I can attest to the hostilities absolutely being mutual, and the exact same pressures of being representative of a class of students in general. It’s a different set of things – rather than suspicion of religious indoctrination it’s suspicion of stupidity, rather than bad social skills it’s drug abuse (there was a particularly memorable incident in my childhood when the parents of a friend of mine who had a homeschool background told my parents that my brother and I were obviously getting her kid into ecstasy, because she came home with a nosebleed once), but it creates similar pressures.

          While I obviously can’t say one way or the other whether the LW is in a high homeschooling concentration area, the odds are in favor of it for obvious reasons, and the mutual antagonism factor gets stronger there. I can also say that even without being home schooled having high grades and certain attitudes towards grades can come off as less than diplomatic. There’s more than one incident in my college career where I complained about bombing a test before actually knowing what the curve was or how people around did, only to find out that that test I thought I screwed up horribly with an 89 had an A-B line around 60. That doesn’t read well at the best of times. It reads significantly more poorly if there’s already a reason to think that there might be more to the comment than someone disappointed in not being as good at something they’re good at as they usually are.

          1. I think there can be mutual hostilities, absolutely, but the numerical minority thing can absolutely make a difference. I mean, when I went to high school out of homeschooling, there were definitely mutual hostilities between me and the other students in almost exactly the way you describe, but…there was one of me and 125 of them. It doesn’t mean that I wasn’t being obnoxious, but it does mean that my obnoxiousness was a lot more of a defense mechanism, because hey, that’s what happens when it feels like *everyone* is against you. I guarantee you they did me a lot more damage than I did them.

          2. Fair enough about geographical distribution being a huge factor for this kind of thing! I know my experience of having been homeschooled being more socially fraught than being gay would, ah, certainly not have been possible anywhere outside the very gay-friendly pocket where I’m lucky enough to live. It makes sense that there are a ton of cultural variables affecting how this kind of classism/elitism/shit plays out in different places.

            Thank you for sharing your experience around this. Schooling triggers going the other way is something I’m going to be more mindful of going forward, and I think it is very likely to be relevant and helpful to the LW’s situation.

  29. Dear LW,
    I am very much like you, except that I am in my 40s and I didn’t work very hard in school, though I got great grades. What this meant is that I ended up never trying anything that didn’t come easily to me immediately, and I realize now that I could have had a lot more fun and met a lot more people when I was younger.

    I am NOT talking about drinking or doing drugs or even dating more. But there are so many interesting people that, in retrospect, I would have really enjoyed knowing, had I been a more flexible person.

    You said that “I don’t hide my grades from my fellow class mates; in fact, I share them openly.” I second the Captain’s excellent advice to stop sharing your grades. You don’t need to be embarrassed by your good grades, but that is different from sharing them. Grades are not all that define you; they are also not all that define your classmates.

    Second, I love the Captain’s advice to try something non-academic that you might not be amazing at. I took up aerials recently. I suck at them and have watched many of my classmates surpass me and move on to higher levels, but I still really enjoy doing them, especially because I never did any sports in school, and this is my first time trying anything athletic. It’s fun!

    1. Yes to all of this. I only took on things I was good at in high school. And it is so freeing to try something (athletic for me as well, roller derby) that you are terrible at and realize that it is so much fun that you don’t much care how bad you are at it – you’ll keep moving forward, slowly, till you aren’t. Or if you never get not-bad at it, till you don’t enjoy it anymore. Which hasn’t happened for me – it’s been three years and I still love it so much. I hope you continue having fun at aerials!

      1. Roller derby! That’s so incredible. I wanted to try that, but worried it would be too tough on my back (broke a vertebra a few years ago; now an partially bionic, I like to say).

        Keep on rollin’!

    2. Not sharing your grades can actually feel really nice. I have a very fond memory of a time when someone I’d been working closely with in a class came up to me a couple of weeks after the class ended, and asked me how I did on the assignment and what the tutor’s comments had been. The tutor’s comment had been “This is perfect, may I use it as an example for next year’s class?”, so I told the classmate that the tutor said my assignment was really good. My classmate then spent several minutes gushing about the comments she’d received, which were not as glowing as mine, but clearly something she was really, really proud of. I’m glad that she left that conversation still giddy about her own success, which I suspect was harder won than mine, rather than feeling overshadowed as she probably would have done if I’d proudly grinned and said “The tutor said my assignment was PERFECT!”

      (I did, of course, grin and say that to people – but they were people who were much less fussed about their own result for that particular assignment)

  30. Another tack: your parents could well have taught you some of the lessons of striving for excellence, mercilessly interrogating yourself about how to do better, etc. (I suspect they might even be professors themselves, because only one sheltered in academia or related research labs could retain a belief in that precarious concept of brilliance that is rarely consequential elsewhere.)

    You know your parents’ model for living pretty well at this point, how they optimize or satisfice, what compromises they make, what they give high and low value to. (Among professors I’ve met at research institutions, a lot of them are personally miserable and/or treat others poorly.)

    At school now and in your future life, you may gain a lot from learning about others’ ways of life. Continue to listen to the people around you, and perhaps take sociology classes.

    And listen to yourself about what you like and dislike. You, as an individual, are worthy of respect and consideration. You seem to be able to roll with other people calling you names, and I hope it is more like the teasing they might do to younger siblings than it is some of them being jerks. But some people act like jerks, and learning to not take their nastiness to heart is an important skill, too. As are knowing how to stand up for yourself, deciding when to do so, and deciding what you need to feel safe in your learning environment and asking for that.

    Good luck!

    1. I feel that telling the LW strives for excellence because their parents are sheltered and/or miserable and/or complete jerks to other people is both assuming a lot and quite rude.

      1. Yikes! Not my intention. I’m sorry that my comments were rude.

        I put a lot of snark in there about professors–partly because of my recent experiences and because of decisions I’ll have to make soon about what sacrifices I’d be willing to make to have a shot at being a professor. That snark is really irrelevant here and probably offended others as well, and I should’ve left it out.

        It detracted from my intended message: LW got the idea that LW is smart but not brilliant, and that seems like as troublesome a distinction as smart vs stupid. I read a lot into what kind of circumstances might produce that.

        A lot of us commenters are also giving advice as if the LW developed these attitudes about grades over 12 years in a traditional schooling system. But it sounds like the LW already has some measure of pride in their own work and striving for excellence for intrinsic reasons. Rethinking our assumptions may lead our advice more toward social advice (the explicit question asked by the LW).

        When I brought up “jerks,” I didn’t mean the parents, though I can see where that interpretation might come from. I meant the classmates calling LW a baby might be jerks. I remember a few classes in middle & high school when I was younger than everyone else; I typically had zero social interactions with others there, and when someone else talked with me it was sort of tinged with “let’s tease the dork”–I didn’t know how much to play along vs. stay aloof. Having a mental category of “jerk” would have helped me stay on guard and disengage (then and later in life).

        I’m sorry that I offended you, and likely others. I should’ve thought the message through more carefully, and I can see that I let mean snark obscure what I was trying to point out.

        1. Thanks for the apology. I’m sorry to hear that you’re wrestling with difficult decisions – academia seems to demand quite a lot from academics and I hope things work out well for you in whatever path you choose.

          I think you’re right about the LW having their own measure of pride in their work and that is a good thing to have. Definitely I have found social interactions get easier as I get older and better practiced at social interactions.

  31. So strange. I started community college part time at 16 because I was homeschooled (K-12). I also saw anything less than an A as failing… until I went to grad school where I made an active decision to have passing be the goal regardless of grade. It is something you definitely have to actively decide. For me it helped that I was/am at a highly respected institution for my field and the program is fairly selective. Way I saw it, passing itself was an accomplishment considering my peers. Like CA and other have said, you need to start working on that now. I avoided the crisis of identity that many students undergo when they do find a class/subject they aren’t perfect at.

    Anyways, remind yourself that not everyone finds school evaluations (tests, papers, etc) easy or intuitive. I had a friend during undergrad who studied her heart out and regularly failed tests. It wasn’t that she was stupid or lazy or didn’t know the material, she just tested poorly.

    You don’t need to be so open about your grades. Switch shoes. How would you feel if you worked as hard as you do, but got lower grades and a friend regularly asked about your grades and told you about his or her stellar grades? Lousy? I would.

    Good luck! Remember, classes will only get harder at a 4 year institution. It is not uncommon for students who transfer from community colleges to have a large dip in GPA the first or second semester after transferring.

  32. I do have another piece of advice. Talk to some of the older “stupid” students about the things that THEY are “smart” at (words in quote for obvious reasons.)

    I was always very good in academics.Right now, in my work, I am primarily assisting people with legal forms. Most of our clients come from manual labor or other “blue-collar” jobs, and many have low education levels or might be considered “stupid” by academics.

    I have to say… when my wife and I bought a fixer-upper and had a lot of projects in front of us, there were a few conversations I had that were very helpful. Particularly with clients who are illiterate, I would spend hours with them on their forms… with some downtime where I had them give me their best tips for how to hang drywall! It was also very helpful, as many were embarrassed about their reading and writing skills. So I could ask a question like “Well, how long would it take you to hang drywall in a 10’x13′ room? One door, two windows?” They would say “About an hour.” And I could respond “Yeah, well, it took me an entire weekend and I still have a few holes to patch where I cut the outlet hole in the wrong place. We all have different skills. I can do this form in an hour because I have practiced it.”

    1. Oh god this. I have an uncle-by-marriage who did no post-secondary. On the other hand, when something breaks in my condo and I don’t even know how to DESCRIBE it, he can usually fix it and if not, he knows who can, and how much it SHOULD cost, and thus whether or not I’m getting ripped off.

      I gotta say the day he asked me “okay did you turn the water-feed into the [combined washer dryer I own] off?” and I went ” . . . I have no idea how to do that”, I was not feeling like a super-genius.

    2. I never learned this lesson so well as I did the day I met a woman who could speak 5 languages and read and write in none of them. Yep. Different skills, different lives.

    3. Yes, yes, yes. One of the most wonderful aspects of my legal practice is the wide range of artisans, workers, and professionals from other walks of life that I encounter. They think I’m brilliant that I can help them through a business asset acquisition agreement — but I think they’re brilliant that they can create a decorative and functional wrought-iron fence, or run a successful bar, or help my sick cat. People’s intelligences lie in different areas. We’re not all experts in everything.

    4. Oh wow, yes! Another great way to expose yourself to diversity of brilliance is to watch documentaries. Pick documentaries which focus on groups of people who often don’t have much access to education, or who never had any choice other than “low-skilled” or manual work, and watch them make deeply insightful points about politics and history and morality. You do have to pick your docs well, because some producers are exploitative and will deliberately focus on people who appear to fit the stereotypes of disadvantaged communities, but if you find a good one it’s amazing.

      A slightly more academic way of doing this is to read sociology studies which rely heavily on interviews. Sociologists have done a lot of work, collectively, on stepping back and realising that their privileged education does not make them cleverer or more worth listening to than their often uneducated research participants, and it really shows. There’s powerful, moving stuff in these research papers.

      1. Since books have a bit lower production requirements than documentaries they can be really good for this too. I have this one in my Kobo library and from memory very few of the women featured in it are literate, they’re mostly peasant workers and similar, but they know a hell of a lot about politics and colonisation and identity and history.

    5. My fiancé, who has never been super academically inclined, was just impressing me with his ability to recognize make, model, and approximate year of vehicles from hundreds of feet. (He has other skills, too, this just happened to occur today.) They literally all look like cars to me, half the time I can’t tell the difference between an SUV and a pickup with a topper at a distance. If we’re ever witness to a hit and run or some kind of getaway vehicle, he’s going to be way more useful!

    6. I was lucky in many ways. Like the LW, school was important to me, and having been bullied, I clung to my intelligence to salvage what self-esteem I could. But I also grew up on a small family farm. My dad has never been the best at academic-type learning. But. He is a very skilled mechanic, and good all-around handyman. When my young nephew wants to know “how’s that work?” (that’s what he asks instead of “why?”), he is smart enough to go to Grandpa (my dad). Because Dad not only knows, he is endlessly patient about explaining, and a good teacher about such topics.

      I also didn’t have brothers, and so ended up helping Dad with stuff around the farm. So I learned, early, that there are different ways of being “smart.” And that practical skills are just as important as academic learning. Sometimes more so. Being able to quote Shakespeare doesn’t fix my car, my plumbing, or my roof. I’m reasonably good at troubleshooting computer problems (although I don’t work in IT). Know why? Because of the skills I learned working with Dad. Troubleshooting, it turns out, is basically the same process, whether you’re applying it to a laptop or to a tractor.

      LW, the world is so big, and there’s so much cool stuff out there. And other people posting comments are right: social skills matter. I had to learn that the hard way; I lost more than one job due to a lack of “soft skills” before I finally figured it out. Start working on that now, and it will be easier in the long run.

      And don’t just read school stuff, either. Read everything. Or everything you can, at least. But do make a point of reading for pleasure for at least a few hours a week. It doesn’t matter what. Read about stuff that interests you from school and you’d like to know more. Pick up a book that just looks interesting, or one from a genre or author you haven’t tried before.

      Learn to cook, if you don’t already know. Even just basic stuff. This is another skill that will stand you in good stead, regardless of gender.If you do know the basics, keep trying new stuff.

      Good luck, LW!

  33. Oh, LW! Past-me feels you so hard right now. I skipped 8th grade because I was bored in school, which made me ~super popular~ amongst my peers (in both the “new” grade and the “old” one). I retreated into more books and the drama department to make it through high school, was accepted as an Honors student at a “Public Ivy”…and crashed and burned really quickly due to various and sundry health problems. (Think halfway through my first semester, in the hospital, invited to not return kind of crashed-and-burned.)

    I ended up transferring to a state school that I’d always (privately) looked down my nose at, because it was…I don’t know, where underachievers went? Turns out it was the best thing for me, because I met wonderful people, was able to finish my degree at a slower pace (because my body suddenly didn’t work at the same pace as it used to), and do really cool internships in fields that didn’t exist at the other school.

    “Learning to fail” is really important, and something I’m still learning. It’s deeply humbling. Due to my ongoing health issues, one of my medications makes me forget words or sometimes mix up words (“aphasia”). I used to be able to impress people with my immense, above-grade-level vocabulary, and I almost aced the verbal on the SAT. Now there are days where I literally cannot remember the difference between “their,” “they’re” and “there” and that’s okay. Also, sometimes I make really interesting spelling errors because my memory has weird gaps (of the kind I once mocked, because spelling used to be easy). Apparently I want to return English to Chaucerian spellings, I don’t know.

    I’ve been trying to learn things and write more and fill my time with things I enjoy. Do you know what I learned? I have rubbish study skills. When you can get through AP Calculus by glancing at the textbook and instantly understanding what it says, or only attend half of your Chemistry classes and get the highest grade in the class, it’s *really* hard to finally learn how to actually study as a 30-something. I had a lot of spiralling self-loathing spirals when I couldn’t live up to my ideas of myself, and I think if I’d learned to be okay with failure earlier it would not have been so terrible. The thing is, getting good grades feels *great* because it means you’re doing well. But once grades are not around, you have to come up with other metrics of “doing well” and it is infinitely better if you are the one defining what that means for you. (Ask me about the time I have spent trying to live up to other peoples’ impossible expectations!)

    All of the Captain’s advice is spot-on.

    One thing that really helped me was learning how to knit (YMMV). It’s really low-risk in terms of errors, because if you make a mistake…the yarn is mostly fine? You can just rip it back…and do it over…and it *doesn’t matter*. Or if you do somehow make a huge tangle of yarn, you can…just decide not to do that project for a bit. Even *throw it away* and no one need know! Sometimes when I am knitting I make mistakes and I dare myself to *not fix them* if they won’t damage the structure of what I’m knitting, just to get myself used to *living with mistakes* and it being okay. I feel silly saying it, but this was *incredibly hard to do* and still is sometimes. BUT SO LIBERATING.

    1. I relate to this so much. I was that student too (I just accidentally wrote “stupid,” because words do not work in my brain anymore). I got into The School. You know, the only place on the planet where anyone has ever learned anything? Then I was in an accident and no longer have the same capabilities I did as a smug 17 year old. (Oh, I was so smug.)

      And in the decade I’ve spent learning to adapt to the reality that most days I think like I have a skull full of butterscotch pudding (god, I could go for some pudding right now) and walk like I’ve drunk a [insert an inappropriately large unit of measure here] of scotch, I’ve had to face the really painful reality of lots of people being really crappy to me—-and the even more painful realization that I was that way to others.

      I’ve known people who by 17 had long since finished college. And people who went back to finish in their 50s. I’ve known people who were fitting in school while working full time and raising children. And people who knew that they would rather read books and spend time with family than stay in school past high school. I’ve known people who have had all manner of different formal academic education experiences all with varying degrees of enjoyment and success.

      But in the end when I think about the people I most want to be like, the people I most admire, heck, the people I just LIKE the most, it’s the people who automatically match their walking speed to mine and go right to the elevator–even though they prefer to take the stairs; it’s the people who spend their Thursday afternoons serving meals at the soup kitchen; the people who took the less glamorous job in order to help their parents keep the house; the people who always bring things to the lost and found and who clean up after themselves at the hotel. But above all it’s the people who are kind, moral, and make me laugh until I cry.

      Looking back at my education, I feel like it was often treated as an end in itself rather than a means to an end. We didn’t spend much time thinking about how we would leverage our skills (or not). I mean, beyond once or twice doing some quizzes that told me I should be a veterinarian (I’m not big into animal and am afraid of many of them) and my friend should be a funeral parlor owner. I think that’s something really important to think about though–not just in terms of what career path to pursue. Nearly everyone faces ethical dilemmas at work, but in some professions, there are big questions that come up over and over. I think trying to broaden our idea of success beyond % of exam questions answered correctly is really important in those circumstances.

  34. On the note of asking people about grades and such. I had a professor who talked about the dinner-party conversation opener of, “So, what do you do?” which is an entirely different topic. One thing he does in small talk is see how long he can go in a conversation *without talking about anyone’s job*. He’ll talk about pets, hobbies, books, That Sportsball Game, whatever. I think sometimes he mentally times it, but also he gets a lot more interesting small talk.

    Maybe you can make a game or competition with yourself about “not talking about grades.” How long can you keep the conversation about other topics? What happens when you do? What do you learn about people? Which topics tend to keep the conversation away from default-to-grades-and-the-weather topics for the longest?

    I mention this because, as someone else with competitive and analytical streaks, gamification is an extremely effective tool for me. YMMV, but thought I’d offer it as a way to “make it interesting.” Plus sometimes when I am trying hard to “not say the wrong thing” that is what comes out of my mouth, so focusing on what I *want to say* makes conversation 1000x less awkward.

    1. Speaking as a decently smart, good-at-grades person who now stays at home with children, I ADORE this version of the “what do you do” game. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been at my husband’s work functions and had someone ask what I do and then wander off to talk to someone more interesting after I reply. I can go on and on about a lot of things (sports! many varieties of music! political things! human development! travel!) but if someone wants to discuss that one specific thing? I’m not interesting to them. Similarly, wanting to discuss grades with people who don’t have the same feelings about them is lose-lose.

      1. I’m just stubborn as hell and deliberately take people literally when they ask. “What do I do? Well, I watch a lot of football. I like cycling. Planning a 150-mile charity ride soon. Home-made crafts. I do a lot of cooking and like experimenting. And I’ve got way more into film in the last few years. How about you? What do you do?”

        Usually people go along with it. Sometimes they look confused and go, “No, I mean your job. Where do you work?” (If I’m feeling nasty, I go “I work in [town], where do you work?”) If someone persists to the point of insisting I talk about my job, then unless they work in a related field I go ” Oh my job is [job], but I have to spend most of my waking hours on that so it’s nice not to have to talk about it in my downtime. So what are you reading at the moment?”

        Work is something I do because I have to. When I’m at work, I have to talk about work. When I’m not at work, I can talk about anything I like. So why would I want to talk about work?

  35. LW, I was you 15 years ago. Amazing grades, homeschooled, community college, unintentionally condescending attitude, the works. In fact, consider this comment a letter from future you.

    Imagine others complexly. Assume that they have a lot going on in their lives that you don’t know about. Assume that they may struggle with things you’re lucky enough not to struggle with. Keep reminding yourself that people are complicated.

    Hey, maybe certain people really are just unmotivated and lazy. Even so, it’s none of your business. You are not required to understand or judge or fix or advise them. Do your thing, show interest in other people’s lives beyond their grades, and keep your conclusions to yourself. This is called humility, and it’s an important character trait to develop in yourself.

    Best of luck, LW!

  36. So, here’s a thing. I absolutely get the LWs feeling of not understanding classmates who went out and socialised when “clearly” they should have been getting work done. Sometimes those people were ones in my group for projects, or who I was depending on for my own grades, or who were slowing down the classes that I was fabulously invested in. While all these responses are fantastic, LW, here are some of my strategies for dealing with a cohort whose priorities don’t match yours WHEN those priorities directly affect you:
    Make sure that everyone has clear expectations for when work will be done by, and make sure that going over the work is a group effort. Talk to your professors if you feel like you’re getting lumped with a lot of the work – your professors probably know already, and are usually aware of the work that individuals are doing. The captain has already done some great writing on this recently, maybe check back?

    You know who loves school? And the stuff happening in classrooms? Your professors! When you keep that journal for the captain, and you work out what you’re really interested in, go ask a pro about it. You’ll probably get some great ideas of what you can read, or discussion about the things that you’re into that you might not get from your classmates. Like you, I had interests that were pretty academic compared to those around me in college, but my professors made me feel welcome to discuss them, and when they saw my interest was genuine they helped mediate the classroom so that I could do my geeky thing without alienating others.

    Last, but not least, some of my favourite housemates have been people who did not live for school. They might not have got – or cared about – my grades, but they were my allies when I was bullied, my shoulders to cry on, the people who made safe spaces for me in social scenes. They accepted that we were different, they valued my interest in school, and I valued their way of experiencing the world – I valued them. If you go on with school you’ll find plenty of people who share your love of academia, but you’ll also find yourself needing other perspectives so you don’t get sucked into the endless spiral of books and grades. Tell people how you feel, and what you love, and listen to them tell you about what they love, and do it often enough so that you learn to see the ups and downs in their lives and interests – be hungry for the kind of learning that you only get through other people’s eyes.

  37. LW, as many people have replied here, I was also like you are now. My identity was wrapped up in school and martial arts, as though those things were the only part of me. I developed a chronic illness that has taken both of those from me. It still, five years later, feels as though the person I thought I was has been torn away, leaving a broken failure in its wake.

    Find yourself. As others have said, find something you’re a beginner in. Find a hobby that involves interacting with other people that ISN’T dependent on knowledge based things. I like board games and tabletop RPGs, since how smart I am doesn’t matter within the rules of most games. I don’t mean monopoly. I mean games like Settles of Catan, Carcassone, Betrayal at House on the Hill, Pandemic, or Nuns on the Run.

    Try anything that you can’t learn just from books. It takes away your safety net. Some activities are really physical, like dancing, but others like sculpting, drawing, or photography. Books can give you basics and ideas, but you have to actually go and learn to do it. If you can find an activity that involves people, that’s even better. Seeing people outside of the school environment really helps to see them as full people, instead of just an aspect, like student.

    Also important: please learn to not see B’s and C’s as failure. It something ever happens to you where suddenly that’s all you can achieve, you will likely become devastated by what, to you, has always been failure, but is actually still success. Good luck, LW!

  38. Hey, LW: different strokes for different folks! A lot of people going to college are there with their eyes on the prize. That is, they just want their degree so that they can get the job they’re aiming for. They don’t care so much if they get their degree with a 4.0 or with the minimum GPA they need to graduate. They’re there for the sheepskin, and that’s it.

    Different people prioritize things in their lives in different ways. This is a fact of life — and it’s seriously none of your business how other people prioritize their things.

    The people I don’t understand are the ones that complain about doing poorly on tests and having to drop classes and then [go] to festivals on the weekend when they have homework. […] I want to understand them better, but it is so much easier to call them stupid and write them off in my head as a lost cause. How do I learn to think of people as people and try to understand where they are coming from?

    You don’t need to understand where they’re coming from. They are adults making their own decisions and experiencing the consequences of those decisions. You should just accept them as people and treat them as you would like to be treated — i.e., stop calling them “stupid” and quit considering them as a “cause” to take on.

  39. LW, I agree with the Captain’s advice, however I would also like to reassure you that there is nothing wrong with liking school or being “inexperienced” (as if your own personal life experiences don’t “count”). A 4.0 or other measures of academic achievement are not perfect reflections of learning, for many reasons, but they’re also something that no one can take away from you, and if you consider your grades a point of personal pride I would never say that they don’t matter. I am 27, and so so excited to be moving forward in my career and able to help people outside of the classroom, but as someone who went “all the way” with her schooling I still look upon my years as a student fondly. Also, I met my current (and only!) long-term boyfriend AFTER graduation and couldn’t be happier. There will always be time for whatever life experiences you want; it’s okay to move at your own schedule. So here’s my advice to you:

    1) Listen to the Captain. Stop telling others your grades. Stop caring about theirs. If they need to try harder, that’s something they can decide to do (or not to do) on their own. Remind yourself that YOU are the boss of YOU and no one else. Celebrate your achievements but stay hungry. Earning the A does not mean that there is nothing else to learn.

    2) Are there other students in your classes who you identify as also caring about school and being highly motivated (these may be fellow A students, or may not)? Can you make one of these students your study buddy? You’ll likely learn more from bouncing ideas off of each other and BONUS can potentially make a friend to do non-school-related activities with as well.

    3) Don’t feel pressured to party or date if you don’t want to. If you ARE interested in those things then absolutely you should feel free to try new things, but it’s completely wrong of your classmates to try to judge you for how you choose to spend your time (which, incidentally, is what you’re worried about doing to them!). When someone gives you a hard time for not doing XYZ practice saying “Actually, I’m quite happy with my life at the moment, thanks” and go do those things that make you happy, be it studying or something else.

    4) Are there any classes you particularly enjoyed, or professors you’ve admired? Talk to them. Ask for reading recommendations. Are they involved in research you can assist with? Start becoming a lifelong learner now, where there is no end grade (but there are rewards all the same).

    Good luck, LW. Have fun. Be kind to yourself and others. Learn all you can, both inside and outside of the classroom. You’ll be just fine.

  40. I just want to add this from a real world perspective. Whoever said this is spot on:

    “I give grades for a living. Here’s what’s more important than grades. Compassion. Empathy. A sense of community. Love of family, if they’re worth loving. Social skills. Tolerance. Respect. Identity. Problem solving. Resiliency. Culture. These things can be taught, but they’re not in the state social studies standards. They’re hard to quantify. Hard to test. And far, far more important to life as an adult”

    Now you may never work outside of academia so this may be irrelevant to you. But for me, as a hiring manager for a Fortune 100 company I will chose to hire a new graduate with a B or C average (or even a person with no degree at all) who displays common sense, has outside interests, is able to hold a conversation about a variety of topics, and can think on their feet BEFORE I’ll hire an intensely focused, straight-A student who has no interests outside of school and study. In my world, working with technical projects and program managers, I need people who can relate to other people. I need people who can motivate and steer, rather than look down on them, and who can personally relate to everyone on the staff – all the way from the most junior wiring tech and up to the senior Vice President.

    Backing off of the grades a little, developing some outside interests, and gaining even just a little bit of cultural literacy will help you FAR more in your adult life than being a 4.0 student and doing nothing else.

    1. I work in academica and I’ll add we look for the same qualities.

      And our organisation is made up of all sorts of “book smart people” and also some quite senior people who don’t even have a college degree but have real life skills that they bring.

      In the working world the OP will meet all types of people including some of the ones she’s thinking off as stupid right now. Some of them will be more senior to her. Her job will depend on getting on with these people and learning how to value their skills and talents.

      I was always academically gifted and came from the kind of background that prized those skills. It’s been a long journey for me to realise those are not the only or the most important skills. Empathy is a crucial skill to develop.

  41. When I was in college I went to see the journalist Margot Adler speak (may her memory be a blessing). She knew she was going to be addressing college students and she told us what her mother had told her in a letter her first semester. Her mother said that there was a difference between straight A students and the ones who got some B’s and that it wasn’t how smart they were. She said by college you can probably assume that everybody there is smart. The difference, she said, is how much time you put in. (Some studies suggest this is true and Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book about it.) The straight A students would mostly have time to study, and study more. The B students would study, yes, and still learn and graduate, but also have more time for extracurriculars – sports, music, art, social groups.

    Once I heard this talk, I changed my behavior. I started doing other things with my time than just studying. I started going out dancing, got more involved in campus groups, had relationships. And yes, when I changed my priorities my grades did go down. I was sure my parents would flip out. But they didn’t – actually, if they noticed, they didn’t say anything. And nobody has ever, ever said to me in the 10+ years since I graduated from college “But why did you get a B- in that class?” It’s actually been quite unusual even to be asked for my GPA, which I always assumed was going to be Really Important Forever.

    The other side of this, which was NOT mentioned in this talk, is that for a lot of reasons often having to do with privilege, many very smart people don’t have the amount of time necessary to achieve highly in school. If you are putting yourself through school by working and studying at the same time, a lot of the time that I got to spend studying, you are going to be working and this is true of many people in community college. If you are responsible for the care of other people (like children, younger siblings, disabled relatives, elders who can’t really get around anymore) then you will be spending a lot of time that I got to spend studying doing caretaking, and this also is true of many people in community college. If you have physical or mental health challenges, you may be spending a lot of the time I got to spend studying managing those challenges. If for time reasons you have to choose between studying and sleeping your grades will suffer *whichever you choose, no matter how smart you are.*

    My two suggestions in addition to the Captain’s:
    – Try more group work. It’s challenging and fascinating and you’ll learn so much about how other people think and work. You can sign up for a class with a large group project in it, or you can just set up a study group with some of your peers. I learned a vast amount simply from asking a fellow student who was very different from me (a working class veteran) if we could go over each other’s final papers before turning them in.
    – Ask people more about their lives outside of school. What you learn may surprise you.

  42. I spent my teens and early twenties focussed on school and getting all the top marks and awards and stuff, and you know what? It’s not that I’m not happy about the things I accomplished, but I really regret prioritizing academics to such a disproportionate amount. There was so much of life I missed out on that I wasn’t even aware of enough to realize I was missing out on. I’m philiosophical about it, pretty much, because it’s kind of who I was and hindsight is twenty-twenty. But I wouldn’t be so confident that you are ‘right’ by choosing to prioritise homework and that your classmates are ‘wrong’ to go to festivals. Who knows how you’ll both see it in ten, twenty, thirty years.

  43. Dear LW:

    Please listen to the Captain and Crew on grades.

    But also, if good grades are very important to you, as it seems they are, think about why.

    I mention this because once you have thought about this for a while, you may develop more understanding of how other people set their priorities.

    I think that will help you in life.

  44. I’ve always been the bright kid. And I’m sure I was a bit clueless at some point over the fact that I just “got” things a lot quicker. It took me a while to figure out that a lot of my classmates had to work hard just to write a paper or figure out an answer. Once I ran face first into something hard for me (in this case playing piano) I had to struggle and practice and keep working to get simple stuff down pat. It made me appreciate how damned hard it can be for my other peers to read a paragraph or write a report or do a math problems. They had to put so much more work into something that didn’t require work for me. I was lucky to have it easy, but it didn’t make me ultimately any better off than my classmates–it just made it easier to be what the teachers wanted.

  45. I was always one of those kids that adults call “mature”: high grades, obedient, not jockeying for social position or making mean remarks about other kids, no alcohol, not too much partying. Took me years to realise that “mature” is a LIE in this context. Don’t get me wrong, I still love academic learning, I have a PhD and everything. But every few years I’d notice another thing that my friends and classmates had been learning, while they went out and made mistakes, that I didn’t have the first clue how to do. They knew how to make small talk. They knew how to just ask out that cute person instead of dreaming about them for months and never saying anything. They knew how to react to being turned down when they asked someone out, and how to break up with someone, and how to get over a breakup. I got told I was “mature” when what was really happening was that I wasn’t taking risks. They told me I was “grown” because I wasn’t growing. That’s pretty messed up.

    I’ll always be glad about the time I took to do things that were hard for me. I started learning how to make small talk by repurposing the quick reactions that I was putting together for fencing (yes, really!). It was hard. I was bad at it. So I just told myself “well done, you’re learning how to be bad at things.” The captain’s advice is sound. Find something you’re bad at, and learn to be bad at things. You’ll grow empathy for your classmates who are struggling, yes, but you’ll also build one of the most important skills a person can have. You’ll build grit. Trust me, everyone needs that at some point.

    1. Oh God. This whole comment, but especially this part—

      > I got told I was “mature” when what was really happening was that I wasn’t taking risks. They told me I was “grown” because I wasn’t growing. That’s pretty messed up.

      —nailed me right in the feels.

      This was me to the letter. I wouldn’t *dare* do anything to compromise my reputation as a bright, mature kid, and as a result I missed out on a lot of formative experiences. I could hold my own in conversations with people my parents’ age, but I had no idea how to join in with my own peers. I missed many opportunities to learn from my mistakes because I was paralyzingly afraid of making mistakes at all. I had lots of passions but rarely excelled at any of them because I couldn’t tolerate being a beginner.

      I’m still like this. I’m twenty-seven now. -____-

      1. Go and do something hard! If you aren’t already, that is. 🙂

        It’s never too late. Don’t get me wrong, it was weird, accepting that I was behind rather than ahead of my peers in a lot of ways, but it was satisfying, too, getting the hang of scrabbling at something difficult and still keeping my head up high. I believe in you.

      2. Yeah, I know that feeling. And that “go do something you’re bad at?” That’s LITERALLY terrifying. I’ve got Aspergers. I was the “weird kid’ in school who had nothing but my grades. Adults thought I was awesome, other kids thought I was annoying. Now you’re asking me to fail at something, and lose even MORE social capital? People who are bad at things don’t get respect. And I’m deficient in that enough as it is.

        1. I’m not sure whether you’re saying “This is what happens” or “I know this isn’t what happens but it’s what my jerkbrain tells me happens” – but just in case it’s the former, that’s not what happens. Unless you’re in a toxic environment (like many schools), or a work environment where your success or failure impacts everyone else, you don’t lose respect or social capital for failing. You gain respect for showing up, doing your best, being nice to people in the process, and when possible being a gracious loser. Most people, honestly, aren’t that interested in other people’s performance at hobby things – they’re focused on their own.

          If you want to try failing (which I think would be great!), you might want to try something non-competitive and individual (as opposed to a team activity). Maybe climbing, or yoga, or art? Something where you’re doing your own thing, in a social setting, but if you mess up it only affects you. That might be kinder on your brain weasels.

          1. Yes, this. I was smart but physically uncoordinated growing up, and the way I finally made my path into sports (which was important because that opened the door to me being physically active, which I hadn’t figured out previously) was cross country. Only the top 7 scores for runners of each gender counted, so I could run at the race and not pull my team down. That meant that I was only competing against myself, which turned out to be helpful. Also, my team was awesome, and if I met my personal goal for a race everyone else would be genuinely excited for me even if they could have literally run circles around me. If you can find a place where you don’t have to compete against others, people have a lot of respect for doing your best even if your best is not nearly as good as everyone else (especially if you’re a decent human being in the process).

          2. Mostly what I was saying is that this is what happened to me. All my life. People think it’s FUNNY when I screw up. Maybe they think they’re being kind? But they laugh when I fall on my ass, or I can’t get my leg up that high. So yeah, I suppose in a healthy system that wouldn’t happen? But it’s so hard to take the risk that it’s not toxic. Because being laughed at, for me, really IS the Worst Thing In The World.

          3. I’m sorry that’s happened Penprp. I guess there are two possible explanations:

            1) Those people are jerks, and it’s just really bad luck that you keep winding up in the company of jerks.

            2) Those people are trying to laugh with you, and to help you not take messing up too seriously and not feel like it’s the end of the world. But they have missed the very important memo that it only counts as laughing with someone if they are actually laughing; otherwise you’re just being an arsehole. I guess if you spend enough time with people who find it very easy to laugh it off when they fall down, it can be easy to forget that for some people it’s not silly and fun, it’s actually really embarrassing and makes them want to sink into the floor. So they’re still being jerks, just jerks with good intentions (but the plate is still broken).

          4. Emma: Honestly? It’s often what happens, and there are often things at play with ASD individuals that result in people-in-groups being way more hostile and flat out nasty to us, often without consciously realizing they’re doing it. (Our body-language and facial expressions read weird, we talk in ways they find awkward, etc, etc). Allistic people often do a huge amount of adjusting and other things to fit into an environment and make sure *they’re* acting Right and in the Right Way to get the Right Response that again, they’re not aware of, because it’s natural and practiced for them. For us it isn’t.

            And people’s interest in other people’s performance is . . . complicated. They care both more and less than you’d think, and for different reasons. And it can be damn hard for us to read what kind of space this is or isn’t, especially in the grips of anxiety.

            I don’t know what your background is; if you’re also ASD and you haven’t run into these problems, then I’m really happy for you. (Genuinely.) But some of us have been seriously raked over the coals by them. If you aren’t, it’s worth keeping in mind that for us *all* social shit can get more fraught and difficult, and environments can be toxic for us in a way they’re not for allistic people because actually most of the time people don’t need to formally know we’re on the spectrum to know we’re Different, and that can and does get targeted.

        2. Right, yeah, I can see where that would be extra terrifying for someone with Aspergers, considering that ableist people sometimes make bad assumptions about what it means for a person with autism to be “high-functioning” or “low-functioning”, and then judge people based on the category they think applies. You get nothing but sympathy from me on that one.

          1. Yeah, Asperger’s has the double-whammy of ‘new things are hard and scary’ AND ‘the only way I get treated like a human is to never visibly fuck up’. That adds a whole layer to the fear of failure that NT people don’t have to deal with. I’m so sorry that’s happening to you, Penprp. I don’t have a solution, but it fucking sucks and I’m sorry.

          2. Honestly, many people don’t have to know what we are to know there’s something different about us, and to target that difference, hardcore (and often without even conscious awareness that that’s what they’re doing – we’re just “weird” or “annoying” or “ugh”).

            It’s a thing that sucks.

        3. Penprp: *waves* Also Aspie. Also so very much know this feeling. If you’re still reading/a suggestion might be useful, the thing that worked for me was picking things to try failing at that I could do *in total privacy*.

          If nobody knows, nobody can think less of me! So things like (for me) a new language, piano (especially playing by chords), makeup, origami, etc. (Knitting is a thing for a lot of people I know who’ve struggled with the same thing.)

          And then after that I tried new, potential-fail things in either specifically chosen “safe” groups (often after explicitly saying “if I fuck up please do not respond in the following ways: [list of ways that will make me feel bad]”), or in places where everyone was a stranger I would never see again, so it didn’t matter whether or not they saw me fail, because they were irrelevant.

          It’s still not easy, I still struggle, but I’m better at it now than I used to be, and also have learned new things that I used to not be able to do. And I figured out that the trick to that is literally just doing it a lot. Even if I’m fucking up, just doing it more and more was almost always the thing that made the difference.

          MMV, and unsolicited internet advice so take with however much salt you feel appropriate, but I thought I’d toss it out there.

          1. Another Aspie chiming in to say this worked very well for me, too. I was always very good at picking up Western European languages (I did Latin at school and the roots tend to be the same for a lot of words) so I decided to try Japanese. Well, that burst my “I’m a language natural” bubble. It was a great learning experience.

      3. Yes. I didn’t dare do any less than my best at school because I was terrified of my parents. Then when I was 8 or 9 this girl in my class (but a year older) “befriended” me – in fact, she was a bully and was sort of taking me on as a personal project whether I liked it or not – and made me do all sorts of things I didn’t want to do. I didn’t know how to say no. All I knew was how to excel at schoolwork. I was top of every class from the day I started that school to the day I left, except for one term where she wouldn’t let me take my work up when I finished way before everyone else (which I loved, because I got to read while the others were catching up) because I had to wait for her and she was always one of the last to finish. She made me make deliberate mistakes in my work so I wouldn’t make her look stupid. I hated it. I think the teachers probably knew what was going on, but the only person who intervened was another student, one who I was pretty scared of (even more than most kids, whom I had no idea how to interact with). She cornered me when I was alone in the bathroom, slammed me against the wall and throttled me until I couldn’t breathe, all the while yelling at me, “You’re slacking! You’re supposed to be top of the class, what are you playing at?” I was totally unable to tell her I wasn’t slacking, I was being forced against my will to do badly. All I could think afterwards was, “Why does SHE care?”

      4. This is me as well and it’s very bad for my ability to independently Make Things Happen. I pretty regularly have super cool idea and end up paralyzed because I can’t do things if I don’t have a life syllabus for them. I am working on this issue. It’s not a great one to have though.

  46. I don’t normally do book recommendations in the comments but I’d really like to recommend Felicia Day’s memoir because she had a very similar situation. She was homeschooled and smart and went off to college early and found herself with many of the same issues that the LW mentions. She was grade focused to an extent that ended up being unhealthy for her, and there’s a lot of useful stuff in there about the insights she had once college was done that she was interacting with the world in a tunnel vision way and should have relaxed more. You see, LW, many of us are smart over in Awkwardland, and many of us have got great grades and a great academic record, and then when the B or C comes it hits HARD. It’s ok to be really into your studies. It’s great to work hard. I’m not trying to denigrate things like that. I worry about “school is my whole life” and “B or C is failure” though. That WILL hurt you. Maybe not this year. Maybe it gets you in grad school or when you join a company full of outstanding people. I have a friend who teaches a science subject at one of the best universities in the world. All of her students are brilliant. Many of them rapidly become miserable when they can’t get the grades that have always been easy. Overnight because of a change of setting these brilliant young men and women become convinced that they’re stupid because they’ve spent their lives thinking in the same way that you do. But the reality is that they are still brilliant, and getting better all the time. So please try to avoid thinking of yourself as someone who gets straight As – or at least move away from making that your identity. You can still work hard and love learning and you will continue to do well, but if you’re thinking “I’m someone who LOVES Physics!” Or “Jane Austen is frickin awesome!” then nobody can take that away from you.

  47. I read that, and a book comes to mind:

    “The Life(Murder) of Bindy Mackenzie” -Jaclyn Moriarty. It’s about a straight-A girl in high school who is captain of the debate team, leader of all sorts of things, ‘perfect’, blah, blah, wonders why her classmates don’t just…work harder… (sound familiar?) It’s a great book. She changes a lot by the end, and it’s funny, and entertaining. I loved it when I was a teen.

    Now, I’m a teaching assistant in university. I grade essays and papers for a science classes primarily taken by humanities students. One thing that jumped out at me VERY quickly in grading papers were that there were a few different types of students. One of them were the types who got perfect or near-perfect scores, they were the people who correctly wrote down exactly what the slides said and what I wanted to hear. I have no idea how much they thought about the material, because there was no supposition, no answering from first principles because they forgot a fact… there were the students who got marks in the B/upper second/insert “good’ in whichever system, who forgot things, supposed things, and wrote interesting answers which obliged me to think. Then there were a few entertaining ‘failures’ – one was the base rate fallacy question. Students were asked the name of the fallacy for when somebody thinks that Person B is a satanist because they wear goth clothes, have piercings, and dyed hair. One girl wrote “I don’t know, but that is so rude and judgemental”.

    Grades do NOT show how much somebody thinks about a subject, whether they can place it in a meaningful context, and, at the end of it all, how much that person is someone you’d want to hang out with. Marks are an empirical measure of how well you are able to reproduce what a grader wants to see. It’s a good skill to have (you’ll be rewarded), but don’t kid yourself, not everybody has that skill, and having that skill won’t necessarily help you outside of school unless you are able to use what you learned meaningfully.

    Captain’s advice is spot on. My additional advice, including reflecting on your own learning and enjoyment and context is … you are very ‘good’, very ‘model offspring’, maybe consider a bit of that fun your classmates are having. Be safe, and good grades are good, but you might find that when you’re older, you’ll regret having not at least tried a bit of drink, or fucking your hair up, or some shit.

  48. There is a difference between “I am studying hard because education is important” and “getting As in school is the only important thing and it’s my life and I can’t understand why anyone would do anything else”. In my view this is not a healthy attitude. I got pretty much straight As in uni (doing a PhD now) but I also fell in love, broke up, joined clubs, made lasting friendships, went out with those friends whenever I could, had so many laughs and moments I’ll never forget. These are the memories I treasure ten years later, not being bent over my books or writing essays. It seems to me the LW is just parroting a script set for him/her by his/her parents. There’s a vibe of unquestionable obedience and “needing to be the perfect child” in this letter that sits wrongly with me. I’m with the other posters in suggesting LW start thinking critically about why getting straight As is so important and what goals he/she wants to achieve in life. And just developing his/her critical thinking all-round.

    1. Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to tell LW that getting straight A’s is a bad thing–it’s really not! I got straight A’s through college and grad school while also doing cool things with my life!–but if you’re sacrificing *literally everything else* on the altar of grades, that’s a problem.

  49. I wrote a whole response and it disappeared:

    Read “The life(/murder) of Bindy Mackenzie” by Jaclyn Moriarty. You may find some similarities between the protagonist and you.

    I’m a university teaching assistant. I grade lots of things written by high achievers like you. I’ve learned that ‘good grades’ is the ability to reproduce what a marker wants to read. People who suppose interesting things, or work something out from first principles in the exam – they do not get the highest grades, but in many ways, they show lots of understanding. Then there are still other people who fail outright, but write something entertaining that shows me that they’re not academically strong, but they’re pretty cool people. Placing your learning into context is important, and being able to get good grades is good, but don’t think that because your classmates aren’t as able to recreate what the marker wants to read that they appreciate the material less than you do.

    Lastly – you’ve been a ‘model child’. That’s great. You may find when you’re older, that you regret not getting up to more shit. Be safe, but consider it. Have some safe fun. Fuck up your hair and learn dungeons and dragons or something. Baby steps!

  50. Hi LW! I was also homeschooled (up til middle school, but homeschooling sets patterns early) and like many people in the comments your letter sounds very familiar to me. I wanted to touch on just a few things that I haven’t seen mentioned yet.

    One thing is that honestly? Getting As with very little effort can get boring. The hardest class I took in high school was physics. Because of that, when I went on to college, I decided early on to major in physics. I didn’t want to just take classes I could skate along in. Now, I was in the same boat as you–“not skating along” meant I had to actually put in significant effort to get B+s–but the desire to have classes that challenged me turned my college direction. Homeschooling tends to install a great sense of direction and a strong ability for follow-through, because as a homeschooler you always have to be motivating yourself and figuring out what you want to do, so you may not experience the sensation others describe in comments of getting Fs in classes. Maybe you will! I don’t know what the probabilities are. But even if you never get an F in a class, deliberately seeking out a challenge can be a good way to re-set your sense of self to its proper proportions. It definitely worked for me.

    Secondly, as a homeschooler taking community college classes, you should remember that you have chosen to be where you are. The ability to choose your schooling environment–even if it’s not an ideal choice–is a huge factor. When I started attending school, I knew the deal I was making: I’d deal with all the pointless bureaucratic BS, I would get good grades, and in return I’d get to learn things and I’d have more chances to teach myself social skills and make friends. Most people who are not homeschooled don’t think of it in those terms. Most people who are not homeschooled don’t get that ability to choose. They never get to weigh the pluses and the minuses and make the choice anyway. The choice is often made for them by their situation–familial, financial, geographic… Since I had made that choice, I felt that I had to commit to its terms. I had to see through the bureaucratic BS and the pointless worksheets and the assignments that were so obviously meant to only take up our time I could scream. I filled out every pointless worksheet for years. Years! And I got As and that was the goal so, you know, mission accomplished. But a lot of my friends, especially those who’d been in the schooling system their whole lives, went a different way: the only agency they had within the system was to opt out of its terms. Do the minimum, survive, get out. I can respect that.

    And for third, there’s a shame-guilt-jealousy thing that a lot of people experience when confronted with someone whose brain works the way the educational system does. (Whose brain works well at testing, whose brain (especially!) got trained to do well at math and science. Which a lot of homeschoolers’ have.) The best way I’ve found to handle those situations is just to bow out of them. Don’t share your grades, as the Captain says above–but if you can’t get out of it, or someone sees the paper on your desk, and they make a comment about how smart you must be, understand that there’s a whole lot going on in their brain to generate that comment. It’s not that they want your advice on how early to start the next paper (unless they have specifically said those words). It’s that their brain and their situation and their choices are the way they are, and yours are the way yours are–BUT (and it’s a big but) society says yours is better. And that makes them feel bad and weird stuff comes out of people’s mouths when that happens. So go with something noncommittal, something to turn away the conversation, because you don’t want to reinforce the things society says about how much better the way your brain works is. It’s already hard enough to work hard and get Bs or Cs without people who get straight As without effort saying seriously that if only you’d just do (x) everything would be different–when (x) isn’t really the cause, or is something nobody can consciously or deliberately do whose brain doesn’t already do that. And then change the subject.

    The world’s a great place. There is so much to learn and so many people to learn it with. Good luck.

  51. LW, I’ve been on both sides of this. I was a gifted kid and an inveterate slacker. So much of my identity was wrapped up in being exceptionally bright that whenever I encountered a problem I couldn’t solve, it would send me into a tailspin. Rather than do my best and accept average grades, I would ignore assignments I couldn’t master because in my mind average was the worst thing I could possibly be. I earned lots of Ds and Fs and zeroes this way, but at least I could console myself with the thought that if I *had* tried I would have succeeded. To the adults in my life I seemed lazy, but in reality I was scared and lacked coping mechanisms for my debilitating perfectionism.

    What you perceive as your classmates’ laziness and apathy may in fact be fear: the fear that they aren’t good enough, smart enough, quick enough, exceptional enough. The fear that they may be too “stupid” for school at all. When your sense of self-worth is on the line, it can be all too easy to tell yourself, “Yeah, I know I have homework, but screw it! I’m going to a music festival!” or whatever, because simply never trying is less painful than giving it your all and falling short.

  52. LW, I just want to second everything the Captain and many of the commenters have said. Your grades won’t matter to anyone once you’ve graduated. This is so hard to encounter if you’re one of the people who naturally does well in school – I was one of those people – doing well in tests and assignments just comes naturally to me. It doesn’t to a lot of people by the way – lots of people struggle at school for all sorts of legitimate reasons – stop judging those people. But anyway – first off, if you go high enough into academia you’ll eventually find a level at which you don’t just naturally succeed but really have to work at it. That’s a hell of a blow if you’ve tied a lot of your self esteem to your academic success.

    But more than that, out there in the working world the skills that make you a great student suddenly stop mattering. For starters all of the structure goes away – instead of a teacher who wants to patiently guide you to learn at a controlled rate with regular detailed feedback (in the form of grades on tests and assignments) you get a supervisor who wishes you would stop asking so many questions and would just work out what to do, and take responsibility for seeing that the thing is done. A busy supervisor who is tired of being interrupted. And busy coworkers who feel the same way. They’ll spend some time showing you the ropes but they’ll want you to take the initiative pretty quickly. Teachers love people like you and I LW but supervisors don’t give a damn. They just want stuff to get done.

    And remember that detailed feedback? Well that’s pretty much 100% gone. And worse than that a lot of tasks are binary – the thing works or it doesn’t, is done or isn’t done – and no one cares if you put a bit of extra love into it they just want it finished so that you can start the next thing. Even in tasks where quality matters “done is better than perfect” is a rule to live by – if your colleague can ship two B- level things while you ship one A+ effort then they’re going to get more praise/reward than you. And that’s a best case scenario – in many workplaces ability to socialise effortlessly and navigate office politics are waaaay more important to your career progression than performance.

    For the academically gifted school is a great environment – it’s predictable and rewarding and easy to succeed at. It’s also *fair*. I mean sometimes (especially in tertiary settings) the teachers even mark the papers blind, not knowing who submitted each one. That is the exact opposite of the workplace, where personal bias and who likes who best matter a lot and no one is assessing your work blind. If someone had told me school was a naturally good environment for me I would have laughed, because I was bullied a lot and very depressed and often lonely. But I was, in fact, very *successful* and sadly bullying is very much present in the working world too.

    And look, as long as they pass everything well enough and get into the courses or entry level jobs they want your fellow student who blows off homework to go to festivals is learning an important lesson. That lesson is how to walk away from a task half done and go and enjoy yourself. Because one day you may find yourself sitting in a job that should really be done by two people, with an infinite list of tasks that you can’t possibly get through, all of which are important, and on Friday night you’re going to need to walk away from that shit-pile and go do something fun and not work related while your job sits there half done until Monday Morning. Because if you work on Friday night and Saturday and Sunday it still won’t be done, your employers won’t care (or pay you extra or even thank you), and you’ll pretty quickly burn out and be able to do nothing at all.

    LW, I worry when you say you’re not brilliant “by your family’s standards” like perhaps you never quite measure up to your parents’ expectations? That it’s easy to feel arrogant at school because at least you’re doing better than all those normal people who are stupid? I didn’t have the best home environment growing up, and like all kids I desperately wanted my parents approval and doing well in school was one of the few ways to reliably get that. But at the same time I was *expected* to do well so it wasn’t a big special thing if I brought home a report card of straight As. And actually my parents were undermining my self esteem in other ways all the time and people at school didn’t like me much and at least I was smart? I know that sort of problem is going to be hard to see when you’re 17, maybe still living at home (or just moved out) and all that. But there are reasons we tie all our sense of self worth to our grades because grades are a clear and explicit message of “you are good” in a world where sometimes we’re not getting that message much.

    As other commenters have pointed out, that’s setting yourself up to fail because eventually your grades won’t matter or you’ll start getting bad ones and you’re going to need to navigate that world without hating yourself and falling apart.

    LW, we all learnt this stuff the hard way. The world after school is such a different, difficult place – broaden your horizons as much as you can right now and you might ease your transition into it. :-/

  53. I used to be good at school. Notice I don’t say smart, because these are two completely different things. Like you, this was my identity. I went to a private school and excelled. Then depression and anxiety hit me like a truck. My grades fell and I eventually dropped out of high school. I didn’t have any other hobbies or skills and that really hurt me because I felt I had now had nothing.
    LW, you need to find something else to define you besides grades. What happened to me might not happen to you, but you could always hit a rough patch. As you go up, classes get harder, you might have a bad instructor, or life events could happen. These all affect your grades. Also, in the most of working world grades don’t matter. The difference between who got A’s versus who got B’s and C’s disappears. This is a major paradigm shift for a lot of grads who have to find other ways to evaluate themselves. So cultivate yourself in new ways. The captains advice is great for this. And don’t forget to have fun sometimes. 🙂

  54. Learning to fail and then pick yourself up again is probably one of the most valuable lessons in life. So is learning to cope with struggling to learn/accomplish something that doesn’t come easy.

    Growing up, I was the kid who *sailed* through classes. My grades were stellar, but I wasn’t a particularly good student. I was blessed with the ability to learn a lot of things easily and a really, really good memory. I excel at analysis & synthesis, so it is really easy for me to make mental leaps from one concept to another or from concept to application. So I got credit for being a “good student” even though my study skills and time management were abysmal.

    And then in the 2nd semester of the honors geometry course I was taking in my first year of high school moved into non-Euclidian geometry. And it didn’t come naturally, so I balked. I spent a bunch of time saying, “I just don’t get this. I can’t learn this.” I finally went to my teacher and said exactly that to him, and told him I thought that I should switch to the non-honors geometry class. He took a long look at me and said, “You’ve never had to work to learn things, have you?” (He went on to tell me that I was basically being lazy and giving up without a fight. And then he signed me up for the tutoring sessions he ran during study hall.) I learned it, and ultimately did very well that semester. But that was the first time I had to *work* for knowledge. And learning HOW to work at knowledge was the biggest lesson I learned in that course.

  55. LW, I wonder what the high stakes are that grades represent to you.

    In high school, I definitely knew people who wanted all A’s just because they were perfectionists. And I knew people who wanted all A’s because they wanted to be valedictorian and they didn’t care at what cost (i.e., they took all classes they knew they could get easy A’s in rather than classes that would’ve been interesting or challenging to them).

    But, just for instance, I cared a lot about and worked hard for my high grades because they represented, to me, my best shot at independence. I grew up with a disability that, while it went undiagnosed, nevertheless got me infantilized, manipulated, taken advantage of, and told I would never make it in the real world a lot. High academic achievement was how I was going to win enough scholarship money to get myself far away from home and make me able to protect myself by taking control of my own life…and gave me a trump card I could use for a certain degree of autonomy.

    So my question really is…is it that you feel your grades define you? Or is it that they define something else to you? And what is that?

    And depending on what that is…it *isn’t* necessarily wrong to prioritize your school work this way, or for that to be what you’re proud of. It isn’t okay to conflate other people’s value or worthiness with your priorities. Even if whatever reason or value you assign to your own grades is a perfectly valid thing (I look back and wish I might’ve taken more art, or just had more fun or gotten more sleep…but I also know that I was doing what I had to do, and it did work), other people get to have their own priorities, and those things might be just as vital to their lives as your schoolwork is to you.

    Possibly they just define themselves differently, and there is no shortage of valid ways to do that.

  56. I had to smile at the Captains’ story about getting As in French class and then being sunk in France. I had a similar experience! …Except that I had taken French class because I knew my family would be moving to Paris for a year when I was 15. I spent 10th grade in a French school. And I failed EVERYTHING. I failed for 6 months. Because it was literally impossible for me to understand anything. I couldn’t listen, couldn’t read, couldn’t write… as it turned out, I couldn’t even take notes, because the way the French are taught handwriting is different enough from the American system that certain letters/combinations of letters were 100% illegible to me.

    In France everything is graded out of 20. I got 2/20 through 6/20 on EVERYTHING for months. Fs, Fs, Fs as far as the eye can see!

    But by the end of the year? I spoke French. I read French. I wrote French (sort of). To this day (15+ years later), I would describe myself as “Advanced Conversational” in French. Not quite fluent, but definitely functional. And I have absolutely no problems just chatting to people, saying things incorrectly, or asking questions when I don’t know how to say something (such as “is this noun masculine or feminine? Did I use this expression correctly? What’s the word for this thing?”). The point of this story is, 15 years later, which do you think would have served me better? A sophomore year wherein I stayed in the US and got straight As, or a year in a foreign country which gave me significant mastery over a second language, expanded my horizons, and exposed me to a different culture? Because I still look back on that (difficult, challenging) year and am so much more grateful for what I gained from that experience than literally anything I’ve ever done in school.

    This is coming from someone who’s 6 months away from her second Master’s degree, by the way.

    Here’s a flipped version of that story: when I was in undergrad, my dad called me up toward the end of April. “I’m going to a conference in Crete next month,” he said. “Do you want to come with me?” “DO I?” I said, “HECK YEAH!” Crete!! The isle of CRETE. What an amazing place to visit!!

    …It turned out his conference was over my finals week. I couldn’t go. I would have failed everything, and had to repeat an entire semester to the tune of thousands of dollars. I was so angry. I’m STILL angry. I could have had the chance to see another part of the world, to see one of the ancient centers of human civilization, but instead I had to take a bunch of useless tests. I don’t even remember what classes I had that semester. All I remember is that I could have seen Crete! And honestly, looking back? I kind of wish I had done it anyway. Fuck those classes. Crete would have been way better.

    School is useful, and can be important, but there are so many important things you don’t get at school. As other commenters have said: school teaches you how to follow directions. And that’s not a bad skill. But there are so many things to know that don’t fall into that category. I’ve had conversations like this with so many other students in my current master’s degree, who talk to me about their stress levels and the material and the hundreds of pages of reading we have assigned. “How do you do all the reading?” they ask. “I don’t,” I reply. I do enough; I do what it takes to get me this degree. I take pride in my work, but I have the rest of my career to truly master this field. I’d rather go to the weekend festival than finish that chapter on Whatever. Who knows what I might learn, what I might experience, there?

  57. LW, like others here, at your age, I could have written your letter except for the homeschooling part – and also except for the part where you have enough self-awareness to recognize that your behavior is a problem. (There’s a reason I empathize most strongly with Eustace of all the other characters from the Chronicles of Narnia. “…he cared a great deal about marks and would even go to people and say, ‘I got so much. What did you get?'” And, “This was very good sense but, at the moment, Jill hated Eustace for saying it. He was fond of being dreadfully matter-of-fact when other people got excited.”) I think the Captain’s advice is good – in particular, I’d love to look back now on a journal I had written about what I was excited about learning in school. You should definitely try that if the idea appeals to you at all.

    Other commenters’ advice about trying something outside your academic comfort zone is also good. I spent my early to mid-twenties swing dancing, and it was a blast. I have no athletic ability whatsoever, but after serious perseverance and repeating the beginner class I don’t know how many times, I finally got to be pretty decent. (I like to say that Perform (Dance) is a cross-class skill for engineers, explaining why I had to put so many skill points into it for so little apparent improvement. Ha! But I had a great time anyway – I’d often find myself unconsciously smiling even as I missed steps.)

    To your last question, I still don’t know why people deliberately choose a certain set of actions with high-likelihood risks that seem very obvious (to me…), complain when those risks get realized, and don’t change their behavior going forward. However, I do know something important: It’s none of my business – and none of yours either.

    A final reassurance: You may never become the sort of person who enjoys festivals and alcohol and so on. I never did (the first time I got slightly tipsy is the last time I ever touched alcohol at all). That is 100% completely okay. It is also completely okay for other people to enjoy those things. Do what works for you and let others do what works for them.

    Best of luck, LW. I think you’ll be just fine.

  58. Another thought: what if, when someone who you knew had been going off to listen to music or play lacrosse complained about their grades, you said something like “that’s a shame, but you got to go to that festival a couple of weeks ago”? Not “you slacked off” but “you did something else good with the time.”

    Even when you don’t need to say anything, it might be worth thinking about it that way. You might decide that getting an A in that math course means more to you than working on a play, but “I’d rather do math than build sets” is a different approach than “I’d rather do math than waste my time.” That may also come in handy when you do need to make choices: you have some free time next month, consider whether you want to go skiing, watch television, or go to the library and read about the history of Mesopotamia, instead of framing it as “I could either study or slack off.”

  59. How do you learn to see people as people and try to understand where they’re coming from?

    Seek common ground!

    You must have something in common with them. It’s easy to zero in on what you don’t share. Take it as an intellectual challenge to figure out what you do share. At home, make a list of possible common-ground points. Try to make it long. Imagine you’re being graded on how many items you can put on this list.

    Ex: Classmates go to festivals when they have homework, but somewhere there’s a classmate who went to a festival when their homework was all done. Do you enjoy festivals when your homework is done? If so, that’s one for your list. You can talk about festivals and what you enjoy about them.

    Ex: You spend a lot of time studying, but at some point you must have seen movies and television. You classmates have too. You have that in common.

    Ex: You have likes on non-academic subjects like favorite foods, tastes in clothing, artists and musicians you like. So do your classmates. Put them on your list of common-ground points.

    Ex: Even the weather counts.

    Then bring up a common-ground point when there’s someone you don’t want to seem condescending towards.

    Also, and this isn’t a direct answer to your question, but while I totally understand that you don’t want to throw a big blow-out party when your parents aren’t home, could you entertain a few friends at your house when they are? Don’t call it a party. Just ask 2-3 people over for popcorn or croquet or cake baking or Harry Potter viewing or anything else that’s spending time with people your own age. It goes a long way towards making you seem less insensitive to other people. If there are people who DON’T call you a baby for your inexperience (and really, what could be more immature than name calling?), start with them.

  60. Oh, LW. I was one of those kids who always chose festivals over homework. I’m smart and test exceptionally well, so it worked out fine for me (I have a fulfilling career that allows me to balance my work and non-work time in a way that works for me). I could have had much better grades, but I’m glad I prioritized having a good time in my youth. I’m 30 years old now, and I can say with relative certainty that better grades in high school or college wouldn’t have helped my career in any way. However, not taking those long weekend road trips would have made my life less rich, and I don’t regret a single C I took in favor of a memorable life experience.

    I’m not saying that my choices would have been the right choices for you, but I am saying that someone else having a different idea of what success looks like doesn’t make them stupid. I took the LSAT on a lark and scored in the 97th percentile, but had a 2.6 GPA in college. You have to stop thinking of grades as markers of intelligence.

  61. CA’s advice is so good, I wish someone had told me all this when I was a kid!

    I was a straight-A student in school, and I came from the sort of family CA describes – high achieving, academically inclined and contemptuous of anyone not in possession of a perfect school record. My mom would, quite literally, call anyone ‘stupid’ who did not live up to her standards. My wider social and cultural environment is also one that emphasizes academic achievement. I was lucky to fit the mold.

    When I graduated and started working, I found myself working with the so-called ‘stupid’ people – people who had scored B’s and C’s in school. And you know what? More often than not, I found them to be much more effective and efficient at work than the ones with perfect academic records. I learned SO MUCH from working with them – not just technical stuff, but also more interpersonal and social skills. And very often, what they lacked in book smarts, they made up for in being rock-solid reliable, loyal, hard working, diligent, thorough and organized. I’ve lost count of the number of times my less-academic colleagues saved my ass!

    CA’s suggestion to replace ‘stupid’ with positive or interesting traits about other people is really good advice. In particular, if those positive traits they have are not ones that you already possess, that’s an opportunity for you to learn from them. This will enable you to gain exposure to new activities and experiences that would enrich your life.

    1. The word my mom used was “loser” but the sentiment was the same. I’m so glad I go over myself for university and started focusing hardcore on my softskills and actively re-framing my thoughts about other people.

  62. Re: Four.

    I grew up in a household where “smart” was the most important thing, and everyone in the family was carefully ranked as to how smart they were, and our IQ scores were held over our heads, and one of my sisters was told she was “stupid” because her IQ was the lowest. When I was 12, I make some remark about someone’s IQ when over at a friend’s house for dinner, and her mother quietly put down her fork and said “[Name], that is just a number.” I had no idea how to respond, because I was so invested in this measurement of human beings.

    And it’s a terrible measurement of human beings. Smart vs Stupid? Pointless and divisive, and what it tells you about a person is extremely limited and has NOTHING to do with their worth as an individual. All it does is cut you off from other people and make you think negatively of them.

    I’m 37, and I’m still unlearning this stuff. I started unlearning it when I was around your age. I’ll probably still be unlearning it at 57.

    You’re already asking the question, which is good. Keep asking! Find other things to value in people. Work on unlearning this harmful thing, and you will find that other human beings contain amazing worlds.

    1. Wow, yeah, my house was a bit like this. My mother still periodically takes crappy online IQ tests (you know, the novelty ones that give everyone a genius-level IQ) then loudly brags about the result. She is actually very high in *that particular type* of intelligence, but doesn’t understand that there are other types, some of which she’s not so hot on. For instance, she and I are not at all good at reading social cues and other types of social and emotional intelligence. She is really, really unobservant. She doesn’t understand the concept of relationship dynamics being different between different pairs/groups of people. But if anyone ever gets frustrated with her for not understanding something, she starts yelling, “I AM intelligent!” and shuts the conversation down.

      She can’t bear the thought of herself or her kids lacking in any sort of intelligence, because she sees it as the most important – no, the ONLY important – personal trait.

      Don’t be my mother, OP. My younger brother is mentally disabled and she’s so far in denial about it that she’s basically kept him sheltered all his life. He’s autistic too and she always claims that any problem he has is solely because of his autism. Once I was talking about the type of disability he has and happened to mention that one of the diagnostic criteria is an IQ below 70. She flipped her lid, yelled “[Brother] IS INTELLIGENT!” and ranted about how of course he can’t do an IQ test because he’s too autistic to understand them (even after I patiently explained the specialist tests we use). And actually, he is very intelligent in some ways (for instance you can give him pretty much any date in the past or future and he can tell you immediately what day of the week it falls or fell on) but he has literally no understanding of the concepts of money or time and shows no initiative – he has no concept of “do task A, then when finished do task B.” He has to be prompted before he can do task B. I have a Master’s degree in this stuff, yet my mother insists I am wrong – he does understand, he’s just “too autistic” to express it – because she can’t bear the thought of her child being less than gifted in anything she considers “intelligence.” My brother is better at spelling than most non-disabled adults and she sees this as concrete proof that he is more intelligent than average. If she could see that not being super intelligent doesn’t make you a lesser person, then she might have let my brother live his own life instead of hiding him away in her home (he is now 30 with many interests and hobbies that he can’t always pursue). I wish she would learn to value the awesome person he is, not the academically gifted guy she thinks is somehow hiding inside of him.

      TL;DR: There are indeed many types of intelligence and they are ALL important, not just academic types of intelligence. I think it is important to value them all.

  63. LW, pardon me if I’m totally off base here, but is it possible that *you* might want to have a boyfriend or go to a festival?

    I’m very different from you but I too had a “defense mechanism.” I was the sarcastic smart girl nobody messed with, which was the entire point, because I had been teased a bit when I was much younger. I didn’t totally alienate everyone, but I certainly had a chip on my shoulder when I interacted with certain people I deemed “stupid” (read: popular).

    But honestly, when I unpacked my terror/judgment of these people, lurking underneath my prickly exterior was a clever but socially awkward girl wondering, “how the fuck do I get invited to these parties?”

    This may not be you. But if it is, I hope you know that boyfriends and late nights and “experience” are okay things to want. They are not incompatible with being a brilliant student, a good person, or a child parents should be damned proud of.

    And if, like me, one of the things stopping you from trying some of this stuff out is the fear of looking completely stupid, my advice would be to lean into it. It sounds like you already have the groundwork laid; why not, during a discussion of weekend plans/gentle mocking about your naiveté, declare that you’re just waiting for some cliché, streetwise mentor to corrupt you? People actually love sharing music/life experience/etc with people who are not trying to compete with them in the “cool” department.

    Also, it’s not all or nothing. I learned that dancing my feet off/sleeping with a zillion boys were super fun for me, but have literally never once been drunk or high. I have dear friends who enjoy the opposite. You don’t have to stop being you, and you don’t lose any gold stars for trying something and never wanting to do it again.

  64. Dear overachiever – the fact that you are aware of the issues is a huge start and means you probably will not turn into my husband’s dad, who held anyone without a PhD in great disdain.

    Good for you for trying to figure this out. Remember this: a person’s moral worth has nothing to do with her intelligence. Everyone deserves to be treated kindly and with respect.

    And remember this as well: you can be the smartest person in your high school/community college, but you may someday go to a school where Surprise!!!!!! you are the stupidest person around because you are now surrounded by geniuses. That is what happened to me and it sent me reeling. Right now, you are a big fish in a very small pond. 🙂 Be nice to people. It will get you a lot further in life than being smart will.

  65. LW, I was a certified “Gifted Child”. Anything less than straight As in all subjects was considered failure. My school set me up for extra classes and more advanced classes. I wrote novels before I hit puberty. (Terrible, badly written, self-insert novels, but full on 50k words or more of original prose with plots and characters.). I got poetry published when I was 12. My school told me I was destined for Oxford or Cambridge. I went to university to study astrophysics.

    And I’m telling you, please, don’t make the same mistakes I did.

    I was “gifted” academically. And I worked hard on my studies and intellectual pursuits. But – although it can be easy to forget this – that isn’t actually the whole of what school is about. Schools aren’t just there so you can go en-masse to one building to read textbooks for a few hours every day and take some tests. You’re homeschooled, so you know full well that there are many other ways we can achieve the same result.

    Schools are also about developing as people. Social skills are a real skill, too, and they’re something that can be sorely lacking in those of us that tend to do better when faced with an exam than when faced with talking to someone we don’t know well. I was years ahead of many of my peers in terms of my studies. But I was years BEHIND them when it came to being competent – not skilled, not adept, not even good – just competent at navigating social situations. If schools graded for social skills, I’d have been getting a D at best. I struggled to understand intent, language and behaviour. I came across as insulting and condescending and self-righteous and a goody-goody. I made very few friends, and suffered an obscene amount of bullying.

    Be proud of the work you do. But try hard, really hard, not to measure your academic success in the letters printed on a piece of paper. Those things will matter so little when you’re our of school. Instead, measure your academic success based on personal goals and achievements. What did you learn that was new to you? What did you find challenging, and how did you approach that? How much have you improved in a particular skill? What new passion have you found?

    And remember many schools grade on a curve. That means that your A in your school could well be a B in another school, or even a C. It means the C student in your school could be a B student in another. Curve-based grading is especially bad at showing an individual’s understanding of a subject or how hard they worked, because it doesn’t reflect how well you did. It reflects how much better or worse you did than your immediate peers.

    LW, I managed to improve my social skills after school. I pass as pretty normal a lot of the time. But I’m still lacking in a lot of the more complex social skills. I probably always will be. I will always have difficulty connecting with other people, difficulty understanding social boundaries and difficulty with conversation about any subject more complex than the weather. Don’t be like me. Find something to love that isn’t your schoolwork, so you can find something else to connect with people over. And make those connections. It’ll be hard. You’ll fuck up a lot. But it’ll be okay/

  66. This might sound super silly, and many people have Echoed this sentiment, but learning how to fail is incredibly important. If you haven’t failed at anything in life then you have never dared to go outside of your comfort zone and try new things and taken a risk. I will say you should keep reaching and reaching until you fail at something and then learn how to handle that.

  67. My dad keeps telling me:

    What do they call the person who graduates from the top of their med school class? A doctor.

    What do they call the person who graduates from the bottom of their med school class? A doctor.

    Here are some of the things that I learned by involving myself in things outside of the classroom:

    1. How to say no (still working on this one).
    2. What enthusiastic consent really looks like.
    3. How to apologize in a meaningful way.
    4. Validating and supporting people who are going through a tough time.
    5. My taxes.
    6. Tact.
    7. How to stand up for myself when men talk over me or take up my space.
    8. Warning signs that my mind/body needs a break before it’s too late.
    9. The kind of people that I want to surround me.
    10. The kind of person that I’d like to become.

    LW, I challenge you to come up with your own list of things that you would like to learn (because you seem like a person who values learning!) that are not related to academics, and see where that takes you. I wish you all good things.

  68. I think the key for you is to stop using school as a framework for your evaluation of life. The advice above is all good in terms of how you look at yourself, but you HAVE to stop setting people into scales of achievement. You cannot categorize people based on grades. I was in your shoes in high school, and a huge key for me was honestly, truly letting go of judging intelligence. Because it seems like what you’re truly doing is trying to elevate yourself.

    I didn’t drink until college. But I also didn’t judge other people for drinking… and by that I mean, I truly respected their choices. When you are made fun of for not doing that stuff, what instigates that? Why do they even know you don’t drink? Of course I don’t know you, but all too often people who abstain from the usual vices when young sometimes (I emphasize sometimes) develop a sense of superiority to those who partake. Your choices are perfectly reasonable and understandable, but, and this is important, so are theirs. You must not place yourself “above” them. You have not made the “right” choice. You are not better, or more noble, or wiser than they. You have chosen your path, and that is good. But there are many paths.

    I don’t say this to come down on you, but to help you understand that perhaps the most important thing for someone who feels left out because of intelligence, etc, is to treat people as individuals. Each and every person is deserving of empathy and respect, and it’s time that you started to view yourself as one among many people journeying through life. Respect them, their choices, and their perspectives, even if you disagree with them, and they will return that.

  69. Can you imagine a college where people Don’t Talk About Grades?

    We didn’t, at my college. It was part of the honor code. And it was a college with a pretty well known name, a college that was difficult to get into, had difficult courses. Most of us had gotten really good grades in high school because that’s how we got there. We mostly didn’t talk about grades because of how it might make other people feel.

    Occasionally this was a problem, because if someone was truly in danger of failing, and was very upset about it, and wanted to talk with their friends about the reason they were upset but felt that Not Talking About Grades was a barrier. (This happened to me.) Mostly people did talk about grades in that situation because the point was the feelings and the possible consequences, not the specific letters or numbers on specific assignments or exams. Also once in awhile, if someone did especially well, got a great grade and prof comment on a paper, or done well on an exam in a class they had been struggling with, they would share this with a friend or two. Generally NOT a friend who was struggling and generally not a friend who was in the same class. But overall, we would get back tests or papers and not talk about the numbers on them.

    We talked about. . . everything else. Including what we were learning and doing in our classes. We talked about what we were writing papers on, and what we talked about yesterday in the discussion section, and how hard this lab was, and what we were reading, and how great this professor was and how dull that textbook is, and how mean the TA was being, and we also talked about books and future plans and clubs and hobbies and music and our friend we were worried about because they were depressed and who was dating whom and who was figuring out they were asexual and didn’t want to date anyone ever. My group didn’t talk much about sports because none of us knew or cared much about sports. People talked about movies, mostly not with me, because I don’t really understand movies. Those people found other things to talk about with me, like how to do #5 from the problem set or how much we should budget for the science fiction club this semester, or what the package information on their birth control meant.

    I remember vividly a conversation I had with a friend the night we met, where we talked about who we might have been at different points in history. The fact that we both liked to learn about history made it a better conversation. She went on to major in history. I didn’t. We took one history class together where I showed up for class more than she did and did more of the readings than she had, and so far as I know, she got better grades than I did, because the relationship between grades and effort isn’t always linear. I needed grades I couldn’t always get, to get into other programs to have the career I wanted. I eventually got that career anyway although it took more work. She is on a different career path than the one she initially intended. We are both reasonably happy with our lives, which are very different lives in many ways. And I (and I suspect she) are both happy we took that history class because we learned both things about Western Civilization that I have since forgotten, but also things about how to examine primary source documents and how to talk about history, which are things I still use.

    One of our college presidents from before my time said that “the purpose of a liberal arts education is to make the inside of your head a more interesting place to spend the rest of your life.” Having an interesting inside of head and meeting interesting people is part of the learning experience. Sometimes grades reflect this and sometimes they don’t, but the experience can be pretty great regardless.

  70. “Now that I am a college teacher, I can tell you pretty much for sure: Grades don’t measure your intelligence or even your knowledge of a subject. They measure your progress within a specific course at a specific school at a specific point in time, and they give the instructor feedback about what you are retaining and how you are applying it. That’s it. Hard work and strong abilities correlate strongly to good grades, but plenty of brilliant, insightful students don’t have the best grades but still learn from their courses. Their learning is just as important and they have just as much value & right to be there as a straight-A student”

    Thank you for this. I’m a professor at an elite US university with a very grade-oriented student culture, and I wish every one of my students could read this.

  71. Hi LW – I wasn’t quite you but I was pretty close. 🙂

    One thing I haven’t seen mentioned much in the comments is just… culture clash, and value clash. I was from a very small town that didn’t really care at all about academics and didn’t have the resouces to help the few kids who did. (Next to no AP classes, for example; no resources to help kids research colleges or scholarships, because very few people actually went to college.) But my family… uh, *did* care about grades, and college, etc.

    I didn’t drink or party or go to festivals. (I did have a boyfriend; we didn’t have sex.) I always felt really, really out of place in my school because of it. I cared about different things that everyone else seemed to. And sometimes it was a lot easier to write everyone else (and the things they liked to do with their time) off as stupid or worthless and feel superior, because that made the fact that I was the weirdo of my school easier to take. But that really isn’t fair.

    Most of my class mates weren’t stupid. They valued different things than I did. A lot of them were still experimenting and figuring out what they wanted to do or cared about. A lot of them started working younger than I did, supporting their families. And a lot of them were as happy as I was, because they were doing things that they wanted to.

    For example – all I ever wanted to do was get the heck out of that town, move to New York, and be a writer. I have achieved all of thsoe things and my life is largely *awesome*. I needed academics to make that happen, my grades were important to me, I excelled, hooray! My best friend when I was in elementary/middle school was not like that, though – she loved the town, and what she wanted to do was stay there, work with kids, fall in love with someone, and have a family. We drifted apart in high school because of how different we’d become, and didn’t see each other for years, but reconnected when I was home a couple years ago. She has achieved all the things she wanted to, and her life is *also* awesome.

    I wouldn’t be happy with her life, and she wouldn’t be happy with mine. I got good grades because they were important to me, my family, and my goals in life. She got so-so grades because they *weren’t* important to her, *and that is okay*. For a long time, I let my weirdo outsiderness make me bitter about that, but now that I’ve got some distance I can see how unfair that is. People who care about different things aren’t stupid for doing so, and you caring about your things doesn’t make you a baby.

    What you want and what you care about are okay (with the caveat that the Captain is right and grades shouldn’t be the be-all, end-all of your life or learning). Please don’t be pressured into doing things you aren’t comfortable with because other people think you should. But at the same time, please don’t pressure other people to do *your* stuff, or look down on them because they aren’t in to what you are. Just keep on swimming, be open and empathetic to people who care about different stuff, and you’ll end up finding your people. ❤

  72. Hi there! Let me give you some information which might help.

    I attended school on a full academic scholarship; I was one of hundreds who applied. In fact my life carried on like that; over 10,000 people applied for sponsorship at uni from a specific company and I made the cut.

    Anyway you get the idea. I got bullied in secondary for this – for putting up my hand so others “didn’t get a chance” or it “made them look slow”. And so on.

    But not everything came naturally. I’m envious of you if it has, but surely you too have a weakness? Are you a marathon runner? It doesn’t have to be something academic for you to realise not everyone can do everything *and that’s ok*.

    I have friends who are less academic in their achievements but are still very bright and worthwhile company. Don’t assume everyone will be hard to talk to if they are less academic. Get to know everyone for their own talents!

    For what its worth, if you’d judged me at Latin you’d have passed over me….i just can’t get my head in the zone, my reports said “14th of 14 but tries hard”.

    Everyone has weaknesses and strengths, how about looking just for the strengths – and not just academic ones!

    A few good friends on your side will hopefully make everything easier. Good luck in your studies!

  73. OP, you mentioned that you don’t do a lot of the other things that the other student around you seem to judge you for not doing – drinking, having a boyfriend (and possibly sex?), going to parties, etc.

    I agree with all the Captain’s advice, but I just want to tell you that you are not particularly weird or unusual or alone. I went through high school cheerfully oblivious to all of that stuff as well, and I was only ever hurt by the way others treated me for it. When I truly examined myself, I didn’t really want to do those things, and now in grad school I’m confident enough to decline drinking invitations because I’m just actually not interested. There are times I feel a little lonely or isolated, but I just had an amazing, huge friendsgiving this year with no alcohol, full of other people who would never judge me for my “non-standard” choices.

    I’ve also never had a serious boyfriend, and I’m a grad student.

    I don’t want to pretend that every day is a magical breeze, but I’m actually quite happy that I managed to make choices in this one area of life based on what I wanted and not the immense peer pressure (that never lets up.)

    Meanwhile, i had a good friend in high school who was desperately unhappy with her reputation as a “good student” and jumped right into drinking, drugs and sex in college. And there is nothing wrong with that, but her comments very much made it seem like she was engaging in a lot of this behavior not because she wanted to, but because she was *supposed* to, and she felt very left out of the high school experience and was determined to “fix it” in college.

    Again the Captain’s advice is very sold for the academic part of your life. And if you want to engage in any of those behaviors, that’s great! Be careful, but you do you.

    But if you don’t, that’s ok too. Don’t use the fact that you aren’t engaging in this behavior as a reason to lord it over or judge your peers, but do remember that you get to make the choices about what you do with your body and it’s ok if your choices aren’t the same as everyone else.

  74. I think #2 is some great advice and I kind of wish I’d had it when I was studying, because I got very hung up on grades to my own detriment.

    LW, I’ve always been very smart and when I was younger I did very well at school without much trouble. I had a similar mindset to you, I couldn’t understand how people could just not do assignments or put in minimal effort and be ok with poor marks. Unfortunately, as I got older, a combination of mental health problems, underdeveloped study habits and unhealthy perfectionism meant I got to find out for myself. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone and I hope you never have to go through it, but maybe it would help you to remember that even for people who maybe look to an outsider like they don’t care, everyone’s doing the best they can. Maybe school’s not that important to them and they’re devoting their energy to other things. Maybe school IS important to them but for one reason or another, they’re just not getting what you would consider high grades. You really don’t know what else is going on in their life – in some cases, they may not even know (it took me years to figure out that I had depression and it was contributing to my lower academic performance).

    In your letter, you ask, “How do I learn to think of people as people and try to understand where they are coming from? When should I stop giving them leeway and say they need to step up and try harder?” I think that the first part of this, seeing people as people, is a really good goal and the fact that you’re striving towards it shows you’re on the right track. In answer to the second part, when to stop giving them leeway? I’d say, never. The truth is, it’s not really your place to decide whether or not someone needs to step up and try harder. That might be a hard thing for you to accept and believe in at first, since it sounds like your family places a lot of importance on intelligence and academic achievement. But even if academic achievement is important to you, it’s not necessarily important to everyone, and it doesn’t have to be. If you find yourself dismissing someone based on your perception of their intelligence, it might help you to refocus on other things: are they kind and respectful to other people? do they work hard at the things they’re passionate about? are they interesting and funny to talk to? Everyone has different strengths. I used to value intelligence very highly too, but now I think the way someone treats other people, especially when they don’t have anything to gain by it, is a far better indicator of what they are like as a person.

    In any case I wish you the best of luck in figuring yourself out.

  75. My tuppence-worth:

    I wasn’t homeschooled (I don’t know that’s really a thing in the UK) but I went to an all-girls school with a good academic reputation. I too was being raised to believe that achievement and academic success was everything. EVERYTHING. Failure would not be tolerated. (Lucky for me that I had the natural aptitude to meet those demands, really.)

    I *did* do things out of class – music lessons, debate club, even a theatre group – but I still did all of them with the same MUST DO PERFECTLY attitude, because that was all I had. Consequently I really didn’t enjoy them, because the only thing that would give me Good Feelings was Getting Things Right. I didn’t know how to talk to boys and (and boy, does this make me blush now) I didn’t see the point in dating for fun because why bother if you weren’t going to get married? *Not* getting married would mean you’d failed at the relationship!

    When I went to university, things collapsed. I had *no* idea how to look after myself and *no* idea how to choose friends who weren’t seriously bad for me. As a result I went from straight As (and a scholarship) to coming out the far end with a 2:2, and patchy memories from where the stress of it all had broken me.

    Now I’m 41 and still struggle with getting any feelings of value from anything other than achievements. (Interestingly, this only applies to me; I’m perfectly well able to value others for just being them.) I’m doing another degree through the Open University (distance learning) and I’m doing much better (well enough to be seriously considering applying for a PhD when I finish), but my home and personal life really, seriously, show the scars of my upbringing. When I compare myself (yes, I know, but this has a point) to school friends who struggled to get Bs and Cs to my As, they also went to university, have wildly successful careers (measuring “success” by “is good at and enjoys” rather than “earns enough to drive a Porsche”) and well-balanced families, rather than mental health problems that prevent them from working at all.

    What I’m saying is, I hope you can figure out how to enjoy things for the process rather than the end result.

  76. I’m sensing a strange mix of both pride and… I don’t know what to call it, culturally ingrained embarrassment at being good at something? Or perhaps it is a suspicion that maybe LW fixation on grades is holding them back in some way, but not fully sure? I can’t tell. LW both boasts about making good grades but also calls it “overachieving”.

    I wouldn’t call making straight A’s “overachieving”. If that is your goal you are succeeding at it and that is great. Nor is there anything wrong with not doing drugs, not inviting a bunch of strangers in to trash your house when your parents are out, and if you don’t want to date anyone right now; fine! LW states they know that but I get a vibe like they feel a bit insecure about it.

    Captain is right about not missing the forest for the trees though. While grades do correlate with learning, it is possible to get so fixated on making a good grade that the brunt of the effort goes towards that rather than understanding the course material. Also, I do not know LW, but certainly some folks who want good grades for one reason or another will pick “easier” classes to help with that. Again, if grades are needed for (scholarship, progression to the next step, etc) there is nothing wrong with that, but just try to be cognizant of the grades as a tool to an end rather than an end unto themselves, or a referendum on you as a person. On that note, 100% agree with captain to stop thinking of people as “stupid”. People are /different/, not better/worse as a whole because they are better/worse at one specific thing, or even all the things.

    As far as people who go to a festival when they have homework, LW, you do you and they do them. I felt like in college (and heck, my life every since grad school and medical residency) there is ALWAYS work to do. On the weekend, on the holiday, there are ALWAYS talks, research, papers, studying for the next big test I could be doing. If I didn’t occasionally do something fun despite having “work”, /I never would/.
    On the other hand, I certainly did know people in college who seemed to skip class and party all the time then… weren’t there next semester. In LW’s example, who knows? Maybe their priorities are just different and they are OK with a B + having fun. Maybe they are actually making life choices they will regret later. So anyway, LW it’s not really your business unless they are asking for your advice.

    I’m not sure if all the homework assignments are necessary, I imagine LW is pretty busy, but agree that if LW thinks their attitude may be problematic those would be good ways of adjusting it some. Also agree starting a hobby or other interest that is purely for enjoyment, not for any sort of grade, will be rewarding (if LW does not already have one).

  77. Dear LW: Sorry to be the one to break this to you, but the earnest students who got good grades in school don’t necessarily succeed out in the real world once they leave school. They tend to have a very narrow focus and, as the Captain pointed out, often dismiss people out of hand without really knowing them.
    My experience with people who were completely focused on school to the exclusion of everything else is, they very often have trouble thinking outside the box – or, perhaps, the textbook – outside of a school setting. I once had a long discussion with such a person about bicycles – I was astonished that she had never EVER changed gears on her multi-gear bike, not even on steep hills. She was astonished that a person would attempt to change gears without knowing the *exact* gear to use for the specific situation. I couldn’t convince her that it wasn’t rocket science, she just had to experiment and change until she found the right gear for uphills, downhills, flats, etc., she felt there should be a book or some kind of indicator on the bike. So she had this expensive bike with 12 possible gear combinations, and she’d never taken it out of the gear it came from the shop in. A silly example, perhaps, but I’ve found this to be true of other situation with other people who’d identified too much with being A students. A fear of trying new things, of failing at something they’d never done before.

  78. LW, many people have made excellent points, but I would like to take a simpler approach.

    See, I find it hard to believe that you are the only student in your college to be focused on your studies. Surely you are not the only one getting straight As and the only member of the honor society? Even if you are the best student, there must be others who are academically in your league, if not your level. If you really feel that, in order to connect with people, you and they should have the same priorities, why do you obsess on what the ones who go to festivals and get Bs are doing with their lives, instead of finding your place with like-minded souls?

    On a related note, why on earth do you feel that everyone should think like you do about life? Someone as clever as you must know that there are many different ways to live one’s life, that not everyone has the same values, goals and priorities. The world is filled with people who aren’t ambitious professionally and simply want a job who will not make them unhappy and provide the funds so that all the other parts of their life (family, hobbies, etc) will be possible. Others feel that college is a time to relax and have fun before they throw themselves into a career and other adult responsibilities. And many are simply not sure how they want their lives to go and are trying as many different things as possible. You don’t have to agree with these people or even understand them; simply accept them for the unique human beings they are and stop trying to align your views to theirs or vice versa.

    It takes all kinds to make a world. If you can appreciate others for their differences to you, you will find your life is richer for having people who aren’t like you in it. If you can’t, stick with your own kind and let the rest of the world to figure out themselves without judgement.

  79. I have walked in your shoes, LW. I had very good grades during my primary and secondary education, often without trying. I was an avid reader as a child and teenager and that had given me a head start on my peers – and to add to that I had a head for mathematics. I live in Sweden so now things start to differ from the U.S. After “high school” (or gymnasiet, as it’s called here) I went to Med school and it was a brutal wake-up call for me. I had always been the brightest kid in the class, grade-wise at least, and I had built up my identity around that – I was the person with best grades, the most well-read and the most reliable. And suddenly I was in the middle of a class of 100+ persons who was exactly the same. Having good grades and being well-read wasn’t something that defined me in that group, cause that was the minimal requirement to get in. I got inferiority complex – I wasn’t fluent in four languages as some of my class mates, only in two, maybe three (… well, I’m pretty fluent when it comes to reading Spanish, but can’t use it in conversation if my life depended on it). I hadn’t done humanitarian aid in Africa. I wasn’t the brightest kid. I was … average.

    During my years at med school I developed a severe depression and anxiety disorder. The fact that my entire sense of self and self-worth was so disrupted played a vital part in all that. I had to go to therapy to get my feet solid on the ground again. Ironically, I started to get excellent grades (way over average) when I was most depressed… because I didn’t have the energy to study and allowed myself A LOT of free time during the exam preparations. I studied a few hours on the morning, and a few hours in the afternoon… and then I lay in bed and watched Master Chef and E.R. (my friends use to joke and say that I learned all I needed to know about surgery and emergency medicine from E.R). I have used the same strategy for exam preparations afterwards – not over-working myself, have some fun also, do something relaxing now and then – and so far it haven’t failed me. My results have never been better.

    So, allow yourself some time off, do something fun. Find a way to define yourself that don’t depend on your grades. As many others have said before me, soon you aren’t getting graded, and it is important that your selfconfidence isn’t dependent of good grades!

    1. Congrats on getting through medical school (and residency?!)!

      For balance, if it’s worth anything, I’m an MD too (In the US – we have a buffer of college between med school and high school) – on the other end of the spectrum, never cared much about grades. Even failed a class in college (multifactorial reasons; didn’t click with the prof + situational depression, etc) but I did still get into med school, go on through residency and now am in fellowship for Oncology.
      Not making all As didn’t hold me back in life, though it did make things like getting into med school a bit harder (I took a break to do research anyway, med school was not my original plan)
      I too was smart and had to learn new study habits every step of the way as things got harder, including to /stop/ studying so hard in Med school — I was burning myself out and grades got better once I stopped forcing myself to study when I was tired and wanted to do something else.
      I don’t particularly regret anything to do with grades; I vaguely wish I knew I wanted to do bioinformatics more than biochemistry for a masters but the biochemistry is not useless, to be sure, and I will keep working on the bioinformatics angle.
      I can’t say I mind being a doctor who sores “average” on the boards – I only care about passing (because I have to keep practicing; I really hate all these thousand dollar+ tests) and doing what is best for my patients and research that is productive and interesting.

      TL;DR – what matters is getting to where one wants to go, grades can be a means to an end but aren’t an end unto themselves, and even if grades fall short there are almost always other routes even to things that usually require high marks. So, making good grades is fine, making average grades is fine, as long as one is satisfied with their life.

  80. Love the Captain’s answer, and wanted to add: your classmates are learning when they go to festivals, too, and when they go to parties, and when they stay up all night talking and blow off their morning lectures. It’s no good if those experiences REPLACE their studies, of course, but learning in college is so much more than classes and tests. You want some memories of extraordinary friendships and thoughts and things you dared to do, before your life gets so full of home and family and job that you don’t have time for those things.

  81. This is all so good. I went to a tiny high school, aced everything, and ran out of classes there, so ended up not only taking college classes, but at the University of Michigan, which is a wee bit more competitive than a community college 😉 One of the classes I took was Latin, and there were four of us high schoolers there. Even at a good school, in a language class people don’t take for an easy A, we were not particularly well-received. We always did the homework, because when you’re in high school you don’t realize that college homework is often optional if you can bluff through the classroom discussion. We always participated in the exercises and unintentionally made it pretty obvious who was or wasn’t prepared for class. The prof loved us; the other students, not so much. When I hit college myself, I realized how obnoxious we must have seemed.

    Now that I’m 20 years past that and have kids and a wide range of life and work experiences (including college-level academic advising) I feel just like the other commenters who learned that GPAs really don’t mean much except on your resume. I actually had to phone my school to ask for my GPAs after my computer crashed and I had to rewrite a resume! Now that I’ve hit 40, I don’t automatically remember things just because I read about them. I aced college Spanish, but somehow bringing it back at this age is ridiculously difficult, and I’m having to let go of speaking correctly, and just choosing to communicate with real people who need my help, who know just what I mean even if I didn’t use the subjunctive when I should have.

    If you love academics and you’re good at it, do it and succeed at it, but do lots of other things, too. Remember that the hypothetical guy in his mom’s basement playing video games all day is really good at those games and is doing what he enjoys, too. We only worry about him because he’s chosen a less socially acceptable focus. You look a lot like him to the students you annoy in your community college classes.

    One Thing, whatever it is, is only One Thing, and excludes so many other wonderful possibilities.

  82. Hi LW – I commented up thread already but I’ve been thinking about your question all day, and after the feeling that Me-From-The-Past* was somehow sending questions to Captain Awkward wore off I remembered another part of your question.

    You ask how to tell when you should stop giving other people leeway on their foolish behaviour and tell them to step up – the answer is pretty much always *never*. Unless you are very close to someone and you think they have a very serious problem you should never tell them to step up. And by serious problem I don’t really mean skipping homework, I mean things like a serious drug habit or something similarly life ruining. And look even in the most serious circumstances (and perhaps especially then) people aren’t inclined to listen to someone else scolding them about their choices and worse yet telling them their problems are all their own fault. Even then you would need to approach such a discussion with a massive amount of caution and sympathy and tact.

    This will be an issue for the rest of your life – adults also persist in making terrible decisions that you will think are wrong. Right now I know a lady in her 30s who is always complaining about how broke and poor she is, and how terrible her average wage (literally – she earns the median income for our country) is. She is also constantly dropping huge piles of money on designer handbags and designer sunglasses and designer shoes and she’s constantly shopping for clothes and ye gods. I earn more than her and see most of these things as rich person items that are completely out of my financial reach except for super special occasions once every couple years maybe and she buys them monthly. Whenever she talks about how broke she is and doesn’t have money for food at the end of the month I have to physically restrain myself from rolling my eyes. But look, her priorities are her priorities and really it’s none of my business. When I find myself unable to express much sympathy for her financial woes
    I just say “hmm” a lot and “yeah that sucks” and nod a bit and then change the subject or find somewhere else to be. Practice this behaviour with your fellow students when they complain about bad grades immediately after telling you how they blew off their homework – nod and make a sympathetic noise and then if you can’t trust your face not to crack go elsewhere.

    People will keep on making choices you don’t understand. Just…ignore it. You don’t have to play along and agree with things you don’t really agree with, but you can certainly make some non-committal sounds and change the subject.

    *to be honest you sound more insightful than 17 year old me – I wasn’t aware of the problems with how I saw the world back then. :-/

  83. I’ve read over the original letter and see two different questions there.

    One is: How can I seem less condescending when that’s really the way I feel?
    The other is: How can I genuinely become less condescending because I don’t like being the way I am?

    In my last post I made some suggestions for finding common ground with people you don’t have much in common with. There’s another tack to take and that’s to stop trying to be buddies with people who call you a baby and don’t care about the things you do. You belong to an honor society. Are there people there who share more of your interests? Hang out with them more. Also, college is the place to try new things and grow new interests. Do any of the things that the festival-going crowd do appeal to you? Ask about those things and say you’d like to be included. This is a balancing act but a worthwhile one. You seek out the folks with whom you share a lot but don’t necessarily challenge you balanced against letting new people lead you in new directions– with the understanding that you might not like a lot of what you try.

  84. “When should I stop giving them leeway and say they need to step up and try harder?”

    The only time it is ever appropriate to tell another person to step up and try harder is when you’re in a group project with them and they’re not pulling their weight. (Note: that’s actively not-doing-what-they-agreed-to or refusing-to-agree-to-do-a-fair-portion-of-the-work. Not failing-to-go-as-far-above-and-beyond-as-you-would-prefer.)

    Any other time, their choices don’t affect you and they don’t need your input on What They’re Doing Wrong At School And Life.

    (True story: I once ditched two days of class to go to an anime convention with a friend of mine and a group of her friends. That weekend had a bigger, more lasting and important effect on me than any of the academics I encountered between 1992 and 2009. Probably the same thing is true for the folks who go to festival when they have homework they could be doing.

    Other true story: I often ditched class to stay home and write fanfiction instead. The people I met in fandom, while buggering off class, are the people who are now my emergency contacts, medical power of attorney, best friends, and person who got me a job at a company I love doing work I’m good at around people who feed my soul and share my sense of humor and love of the absurd. Anecdata: many, many of my classmates who spent all their free time networking and building their CVs still can’t find work in their field, because mymajor!grads from my school are really thick on the ground in that state, so the folks hiring can afford to be really picky about who they call in for an interview.

    Third true story: I realized three and a half years into my degree that I hated everyone in my program, never wanted to see or work with them again, and eventually had a nervous breakdown and dropped out with three classes to go before graduation. None of this means I’ve failed life, nor that you’ve failed life for caring about school much more than I ever did. It just means that what’s right for you isn’t necessarily right for other people, and the only right you get to be the expert on is your right.)

    (Also: Cs get degrees. What do you call the person who graduated last in their class from the worst medical school in their country? Doctor.)

    1. (Ugh, unsolicited input, even. If someone asks your opinion or advice, by all means be kind but honest.)

  85. In high school I was exactly like LW here, I couldn’t fathom the “stupidity” and lack of caring of the other students in my school. That changed when I truly stopped caring about what I was learning. So, I really like the idea of the journal, that sort of thinking managed to get me through the toughest semester of college. I was absolutely miserable, my anxiety and depression were not the worst they’ve been but pretty dang close, and I just couldn’t put any effort into my schoolwork. I ended up being invited to a disernment retreat and I started thinking about what I wanted to learn not what I could. I filed the major change papers the week I got back. I’m back to being a straight A student and I’ve never been happier. But now I understand the fact that grades don’t matter when you truly don’t care about what you’re learning. In fact if you don’t care about what you’re doing and it starts to get hard you are going to have a bad time.

  86. Longtime lurker decloaking to thank you for this wonderful advice – and, as always, so generously phrased. Your explanation of the importance of grades is so, so true. I plan to share it with my class of first-year law students, who are about to take exams for their first semester of law school grades (and many of whom aren’t doing as well in my class as they expected). The older I get, the more i realize how little correlation grades have with either intelligence or knowledge – and particularly with ability to apply that knowledge. I wish the Captain had been around when I was LW’s age. As it is I learn a tremendous amount from the advice and this community.

    Good luck, LW . You show commendable self-awareness in asking these questions. Take this advice and you’ll be astonished at how you blossom – as a bonus, it probably won’t hurt your grades, either, but you won’t care as much whether it does.

  87. Every academic setup can be a little bit of a bubble and you are probably a big fish in a small pond. Don’t forget there are other ponds out there in the form of elite universities with extremely bright and driven students studying the same courses as you with whom you will eventually compete in the job market. If you are feeling condescending about your current school-mates, maybe this reality will help temper that. And as others have pointed out, recruiters are looking for a well-rounded personality, not an academic know-it-all. So it’s always a good idea to participate in various extra-curricular activities to build different aspects of your personality and develop your team skills. Finally, there is nothing wrong with aspiring towards academic excellence and achieving it. It is certainly valued in several settings (academia, scientific research, investment banking, elite law firms and consulting firms etc.) and if one of those careers is your final objective, then by all means keep at it. Just don’t neglect everything else. Good luck!

  88. This letter resonates with me very much. I was always the smart kid all the way through college. I got to grad school intent on getting my PhD in virology and working to make vaccines. I had known what I wanted to do with my life since middle school.

    Cut to me having intense anxiety, depression, and panic attacks due to a horrible off-campus mentor. I left that lab, came back to my university, and then had a horrible rotation. I tried to stick it out, but in the end I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get my PhD in an amount of time that still kept me competitive since I had to teach full time for my salary. So I took a masters- actually just defended successfully on Tuesday.

    You would think a masters is something to be proud of, but I still frame it as a failure because I came to my university to get a PhD. It’s so hard not to blame myself for my mentor failing me. It’s very hard to think of my masters as a success I should be proud of because technically I failed at my PhD program. I have never coped with failure well and then here is a failure that ended my graduate career and has me questioning what I wanted to do in life. Obviously I was ripe for a complete meltdown, which did happen in glorious fashion. I’m still coping with the GAD this experience has left me.

    Thankfully my students have been an anchor for me and my love of TAing has me considering going into teaching and scientific literacy. I see how the school system has failed them. Their writing skills are nonexistent. Just awful. I cringe when I think of them going into a job and not knowing how to compose professional documents or emails. I try as much as possible to help both their writing and scientific knowledge, but I can’t fix years of neglect in one semester. It sickens me how woefully underprepared they are for the work force. That’s a big reason why I now want to go into education.

  89. To answer your question about ‘why don’t they just work harder?’:
    They have different priorities. If they’re going to festivals, hanging out with friends, and things like that, it’s probably because that’s what they want to do. Or perhaps what they have to do. They might have health problems, family obligations, or full time jobs to take care of. They might value having fun, socializing, their friends, expanding their horizons more than their grades. That’s how they think of themselves. Being smart and getting good grades might not be what your peers are most proud of.

    I think you know that, on some level. It can be hard to get out of your own head and understand how other people think when you feel so isolated. I can relate… I fell into the “I must get perfect grades because I am Smart, and that’s Who I Am” trap, and then I got sick and dropped out.

    My point is, you sound like maybe your grades are the One Thing you have? Maybe even the One Reason you like yourself? And I really hope you find more things about yourself to love, and more things that make you feel happy and fulfilled. How would you feel about yourself if you weren’t in school right now? Because eventually, you won’t be. And I’m sure there is so much more to you than that desperation to prove you’re smart. I’m sure there is so much out there that could make you happy, and so much yet to discover about yourself! It’s so hard being thrust into the adult world that young, so please take the Captain’s advice to heart.

  90. I’m in a very similar situation to you right now, Overachiever, so I may be projecting a bit (this letter was very close to me), but is it possible you’re kind of jealous of your classmates who are dating/going to festivals/spending time with each other?
    I was homeschooled until high school, and in high school I entered a very academically competitive program where most of the students were grades-focused, less than 96% was considered lower than it should be, our grades were a constant topic of discussion, etc, etc. And I found it could be deeply anxiety provoking, but I was good at academics and thrived in that kind of environment. I also found that nine years of being homeschooled had left me with absolutely no social skills. I had had the same friend group since I was eight, and when we drifted apart in the first year of high school, I had no idea what to do about it. I didn’t know how to make friends or talk to my classmates. I watched them making friends with each other and was so confused. How were they doing that? How were they talking to each other? What was the secret formula that allowed them to find friends and dates and go to parties?? I didn’t know how to do any of that, and I ended up having a lot of problems with social anxiety (these problems probably still existed when I was homeschooled, but it didn’t really come up because I never actually needed to interact with anyone outside my family). Although a lot of people in my program were very close and I still think fondly of all of them, I never progressed beyond talking to them during classes.
    In university I’m in kind of the same boat, where I have no problem maintaining a 4.3 GPA (so far) but literally my only social interaction is a weekly skype call with my family. And in my head I use the two things to sort of balance each other out– sure, I’m incapable of normal human connection, but I have perfect grades, which is good in another way, so as long as I maintain my grades my problems with social anxiety don’t matter. They cancel each other out to make me a normal functional human being (I’m aware that this isn’t how it works in real life, but it does make me feel better about myself).
    I know that a lot of homeschoolers don’t have a problem with social skills, but if you’ve never had many friends/only maintained a small friend group of other homeschoolers since childhood, you might be looking at your classmates having parties and thinking “Sure, I can’t do that, but I can get good grades which is the more valuable skill, so I’m making better choices and it doesn’t matter that I haven’t made any friends” as sort of a self defense mechanism. And if that’s true, I can’t really offer any advice (like I said, I haven’t resolved the situation myself) except for you to maybe be aware of your thought process and realise that you and your classmates have skills in different areas, and that their skills in social situations are just as important in life as your skills in academic situations.

  91. Shortly after I graduated summa cum laude from a super selective college you have heard of, I was doing my first job in the margins department of a stock brokerage. The nature of the work meant that the skills that had gotten me all those academic accolades also made me quite good at the job. And the organization of the department was such that people were ranked on objective scores and promoted based on those scores, AND that working harder and faster meant that you would get higher scores. I did quite well at that job until I left to go to a PhD program when I had saved up enough money to do so comfortably.

    You know what the most important thing I learned at that job was? That not everyone was like me, and that people could have different values and priorities than I did, and still be completely awesome people. There was a guy I worked with who was very smart, and who had graduated with some kind of high honors from a college more or less just like mine. He was a few years older than me and could easily have beaten me on those objective scores, probably without trying very hard. And he did not do it. I was baffled and frustrated by him.

    And then I asked him why he managed his work the way he did. He said because he could, because it took little mental or emotional effort to do a good enough job, and it paid the bills. And it left him with time and (more importantly) energy for the thing he really wanted to do, which was to set up and run neighborhood arts programs all over the city. Which he did, and which he was brilliant at, and which changed the lives of so many, many people.

    He helped me see that treating the job as a source of income that let him do what he really cared about was a fine, valuable choice. And I started looking around and I noticed that other brilliant people were making similar choices, because they wanted to save their energy for their kids or for renovating their homes or for caring for their dying-from-AIDS partner or for making substantive preparations for their backpacking trip around the world or even just for being in their 20s in one of the greatest citites in the world. And that those were all choices just as valid as my choice to see how high up the corporate ladder I could climb in the three years I had allotted myself before I went onto my PhD program.

    I am so grateful that this fellow didn’t respond badly to my rather arrogant completely condescending demand that he account to me for choices that I had already decided were wrong. By opening his world up so I could look at it, he taught me that different choices have value. And, perhaps even more importantly, he taught me that I would benedit from knowing that my choices were as conscious as his. So yeh, I still went off to graduate school on my original schedule, but in the meantime, I’d done a lot of self-examination and by the time I left, it was because I knew that it was what I really wanted to do, not because I was just jumping through another hoop because it was there.

    Thanks, Tom. You opened my life up in ways you probably never knew about, and I am still grateful, 30+ years later.

  92. LW, I was also very focused on school and always got straight A’s through high school. What sticks out at me is not that you want to do well in school, it’s that your extracurriculars are related to doing well in school, too, not to anything you’re interested in for its own sake. Even for academics, school is a means to an end rather than an end unto itself (for academics the job is a way to get paid for teaching and research in a subject they love, not to keep getting good grades). So what interests you? Which classes do you like the best, and why? What do you picture yourself doing after you graduate? What do you do for fun? And based on that, are there ways to expand your horizons outside of your classes and grades? Join the debate team, be in a play, do an internship, write a column in the school paper, tutor middle school kids in a subject you like, or whatever. You can be doing things outside of classes that also look good on resumes and applications, if that’s a concern or you’re getting family pressure. But find something you want to be doing for its own sake, not just to check off a box or feel like a success or make your parents happy.

    This would have a couple of useful side effects. Doing more things will give you more empathy for classmates who don’t always prioritize their time exactly as you would. Extracurriculars will expand your social horizons and help you with social skills and let you meet people without knowing anything about each others’ grades. And yes, extracurriculars might keep you from getting an A in something, so they will teach you how to cope with that.

    Good luck, LW.

  93. LW — I may be reading into your letter and making wildly inaccurate conclusions but… Are you lonely? Your letter mentions (several times) using your youth and naivete as a defense mechanism to not indulge in the behaviors of your classmates. If I had written that letter at your age, it would have been my way of stumbling around the question of “Why can’t I connect to these folks?” And, indeed, it sounds like you don’t have a lot in common with them. (I, too, never drank and went to a serious party school.) As I said, I could be wholly missing the mark here, but I feel like you’re isolated and you’re trying to figure out why.

    In other places, Cap has excellent advice on how to find people and connect with them. It’s good advice. And I promise you, even as the only teetotaler at a heavy drinking college, I found plenty of friends. Really, what I learned the most in college was how to make friends *on purpose* for the first time. It’s a skill that has served me very well in the past 25 years.

    Whether or not you are lonely, this is a complicated time in your life. It’s possible that a good counselor or therapist could help you navigate your way through this. There’s a good chance your college offers such services. Maybe take advantage of them.

  94. I’m leaving this comment because I don’t think this issue has been addressed.

    LW, like you I was an overachiever in school, regarding anything below an “A” as a “failure” (except for gym. Why, by all of Jesus Harriet Christ’s collection of sparkly nail polish and adorable ties, did they integrate your GYM grade into your GPA? My mind, after far too many years, still reels). I wasn’t homeschooled, I went to a high school where they expected all of us to go to “good” colleges, and where grades were fairly important (but it was quite taboo to talk about yours or ask about someone else’s).

    What I wanted to point out was that these ideas do not come out of a vacuum. For me, it was because I grew up in a family where I wasn’t really treated like a person, but like an accomplishment. It was absolutely necessary for me to be the very best at things I could be best at, or otherwise, I was worthless in the eyes of my parents: I had not performed my function. If I wasn’t bringing home As to boast about, or winning prizes, or getting SAT scores that could be waved like a flag under the noses of other parents, I was essentially a waste of space.

    LW, I hope you’re not in the same situation. I’m not accusing your parents of anything; the problem with the model of “I am worth what I accomplish” is that it’s EVERYWHERE, not just in the messages we get at home, and you don’t have to get it from your parents. It can just happen.

    All the same, these ideas can prove unbelievably toxic, persistent, and pervasive. I refer to them as “the Void” because the problem with predicating your self-worth on accomplishments is that there will never be enough accomplishments. Every day it’s like “as soon as I [graduate summa cum laude] [get into an Ivy League grad school] [get a Ph.D.] [win research money] [win a Pell Grant] [publish a prizewinning book] [get tenure at an Ivy/GET TENURE AT ALL] [win a MacArthur Grant] [win a Nobel Prize]” I will feel accomplished and satisfied and Worthy as a Human Being.

    But none of these things will work. Because you cannot fill the Void with accomplishments.

    You can only fill it with understanding that worthiness — whether your own or someone else’s — does not come with external marks of accomplishment. Grades don’t fill it. Publications don’t fill it. Awards don’t fill it. There will always be someone else more accomplished.

    Worthiness as a human being has to come from somewhere else.

    A lot of the other advice here is really good with relating to that, but I wanted to address the Void in particular, because, truth to tell, I still struggle with it.

    (Also, as you might be able to tell, I am still in academia, where I teach at the college level and therefore have to give grades out. I love teaching. LOVE IT. But I hate grading — it just can’t cover the whole of a student’s accomplishments and experience in a class. In some ways that is good, but in other ways, if I had my way, I would completely abolish the grading system.)

    1. Another think to keep in mind: people are not “stupid ” or “smart” or “bad” or “good”; actions are. Thus, for examine, I am not stupid, but sitting down in a chair right after you put an electrified mat on it is a stupid thing to do. (Not that I have ever done this… twice..)

    2. I’m in the UK, we don’t have GPA, but is including gym in there a dual purpose of helping non-academic people feel like they can do something of worth, and teaching academic-only people how to fail?

      1. Nah, it’s supposed to be part of an effort to keep kids healthy. A lot of health and safety type classes also come through the gym teachers sometimes, depending on your school (e.g., nutrition, sex ed, driver’s ed).

  95. ‘I use my reputation as, at least somewhat, a defense mechanism. I have never had a boyfriend, had any alcohol,done any sort of drugs, etc. The people in my classes call me a baby because I don’t lie about being extremely inexperienced, and I don’t really mind that. I my be inexperienced, but I am not as naive as they seem to think I am. I use my inexperience as a reason I don’t throw parties when my parents leave me home alone for sometimes up to a week (they both travel for work).’

    I feel like the parts of your letter that are negative about your classmates have been addressed so I want to offer nothing but pure sympathy for what I see in those quote marks. I felt similar at 17. Looking back now I recognise it as peer pressure but I didn’t back then because it didn’t look like how I expected peer pressure to be from what teachers had said. Just because no one is shoving alchohol or drugs into your hands doesn’t mean the pressure from your environment isn’t there. There’s this idea of what older teens are supposed to be doing and what their interests are supposed to be and it all gets universalised in a way that can feel horrible and pressurey. You have (probably correctly) identified that at least some of the people talking about these things around you may be lying about it, and you’ve chosen not to do this. I respect your decision to be brave and let people know that you’re not doing these things, and I bet there are some around you who secretely appreciate this and feel better about themselves.

    I don’t want to seem like I know everything at 26 or seem condescending, but just wanted to let you know that this stage in your life is not permanent and things will get easier. Even if everyone around you is still drinking and partying and you still don’t want to, people relax a bit more as they get older and start to realise that there are people who don’t do these things and that’s ok. Even better, people who still make fun of others for not doing these things start to stand out more as that behaviour is what becomes viewed as immature, not what you’re doing. Some people choose to never have sex, some people never get drunk or high. If you never do any of those things you will still be viewed as an adult soon enough because that’s what other adults do. And if you do these things by choice then that’s fine too but it won’t mean you’re any more or any less mature.

  96. Yo, LW! I am a 15 year old homeschooler dual-enrolling in community college, so high five for that! We are awesome and intelligent and great. However, that doesn’t mean we’re better people than anyone else. That’s the thing I’m always doing my best to remember. Everyone in the world is born equal, and while I’m still figuring out the logistics of my beliefs considering how behavior affects people’s importance and worth, for now I am assuming that everyone is worthwhile, even if their skills lie in different areas than yours.

    In regards to the laziness thing, where people go to festivals instead of doing homework, people have different priorities than you. People don’t think like you all the time. Those people might prioritize an exciting social life full of friends and awesome activities over classwork. Other people might prioritize a job over college, or family, or their own mental or physical health. Sometimes people just have a hard time with stuff. I have the WORST time with spacial reasoning, and I got a C on multiple Astronomy assignments because I could not take the diagrams and turn them into three dimensional models in my head.

    Now, to get to another problem: Your worth does not depend on your intelligence. You sound like a really great, cool person from your letter, and it has nothing to do with how smart you are. If you fail ALL of your classes, you will still be a great, cool person. If you end up working at a minimum wage job, you will still be a great, cool person. If you end up DYING ALONE with CATS, you will still be a great, cool person. Well, I mean, not anymore, because you will be dead. But you will HAVE BEEN a great, cool person. I would have given a lot to hear that back when I was taking a semester at a charter high school and stressing out about everything. My sister went to the same school, had a blast, was friends with everyone, has only good memories, and got Cs in everything.

    Be kind, even if you’re not necessarily nice. Listen to people, and talk about things that interest you instead of things you want to show off. Don’t assume you’re better than anyone else, and don’t assume your worth is based on intelligence.

    Also, seriously, just read like all of the posts Captain Awkward has made ever. Worked for me! I am now a much kinder, socially adept, and assertive person.

  97. This point has been made previously, but I would add that in my experience a lot of the activities surrounding college are what makes it a rich experience, not just classes themselves. I’m totally a Hermione type, loved classes, enjoyed learning, and still have some of my textbooks and notebooks from that time that I sometimes (rarely) still read. It was awesome! You will understand what a nerd I am when I say sometimes I still write what are essentially college term papers FOR FUN, more than a decade after I graduated.

    At the same time, I’m so glad that I didn’t just focus on academics while I was at school. In college it was IMPOSSIBLE to get all of the reading done for all of my classes (normally I would try for the first two weeks or so to get a feel for which was actually the important reading, and then focus on that for the rest of the semester). Studying could have filed my whole life had I not created good boundaries for it. (Some people do well studying every day; I personally had a few days each week that I didn’t allow myself to study, and then I’d spend several hours at it on my study days. YMMV) At the same time, while taking classes and writing papers enriched my life, the best part for me was the social part. Some of those friends that I met my freshman fall semester 18 years ago (or over the next year or two, although it’s amazing how many of them were in that first semester) are still some of my closest friends whom I see or talk to every month (in some cases every week). We got to experience Life Together in the dorms and grow closer than is easy post-college when people are focusing on careers and babies. I am SO glad that I devoted time to that, and while some of my grades could have been higher, they’re totally worth the time I invested in them. And now, years later, my work study job at college (only vaguely related to my majors) led to another job that led to another job that led to the one I have now, totally unrelated to the first one or my majors, but I followed different interests from one place to another and stumbled across this position that literally only required a college decree and did not care at ALL about either the major or the GPA.

    So one more person here voting for you to keep going at it with school if that’s what you love, but make sure that grades don’t eat the rest of your life, because college can be SO much more than grades.

  98. So I left a super-long reply about my experience as a homeschooler interacting with the sometimes-hostile wider world, which on reflection probably wasn’t necessary. But LW, I wanted to validate that you are not the only one bringing the awkward to the table here. As you yourself acknowledge in your letter, there are ways that you are being condescending and rude to your classmates, and biases that you need to work on. But your classmates also are being condescending and rude to you (f’r instance, calling you a baby is not cool, and really neither is putting you in a position where you have to defend not having wild parties in your parents house, seriously, classmates, wtf) and they have their own biases to work on, too.

    Your letter sounds as if you’re doing a really good job examining your prejudices and how you interact with people, and I’m sure you’ll get it figured out, one step at a time. Most likely a bunch of your classmates will get it figured out, too, so eventually interactions will be easier for everyone. If not, there’s a whole world of other people out there for you to connect with. It is not Academic You stranded alone amongst the Party People, I promise, even if that’s how college can sometimes make the world feel.

    If you’re doing your work and you’re still not connecting with your classmates, you can let them figure their stuff out on their own time and find Your People somewhere else. I’m not saying that to let you off the hook on all the hard work you have ahead of you, but because I know from experience it can be easy to swing too far the other way and to feel like all of the awkward must belong to you because you’re the one being Different.

    Something I wished I knew sooner – you don’t necessarily have to talk about yourself with your classmates. Not only do you not have to talk about your grades, you don’t have to talk about how you were homeschooled or about your inexperience with sex/drugs/alchohol unless you want to. There’s nothing wrong with telling people that you don’t drink or whatever, but there’s also nothing wrong with just sitting the drinking-conversation out quietly or changing the subject if that’s what works for you. You’re allowed to protect yourself, it’s just that you need to learn how to do it without putting down other people in the process. I would definitely recommend finding another venue to start practicing social skills in, because the classroom really is quite different from anywhere else you will be called on to social in. Volunteering at the library and working a low-wage job worked well for me. (I actually decided to skip college altogether, not least because it was bringing out the worst, most-judgy sides of me; though I also just didn’t much like it, so that made a lot more sense for me than it sounds like it would for you.)

    Good luck! This is huge, important stuff that you’re tackling – the sort of stuff that people struggle with all of their lives. Congratulations on being able to identify and articulate it already. That’s half the battle right there.

  99. “When should I stop giving them leeway and say they need to step up and try harder?”

    While you are a teenager and they are teenagers and you are both attending school and you aren’t really friends?


  100. Hi LW! Your comment really resonated with me because I feel like I’m going through a really similar journey myself. I’m older than you, but younger than 20 and I’ve always been the person who did really well in school without really trying. I would second (or third) the suggestion that you try things you aren’t good at, but I think the point people are trying to make is that you want to remember that you’re good at some things but not at others and other people are just the same. I find that something that helps me not act too stuck-up is that whenever I start a train of thought that feels like bragging (wow that was so easy, I’m so good at this subject, I did well without even trying, etc) I try to also think ‘because my talents are focused in academic areas, because I have school smarts not street smarts, because I got lucky with the way my brain is wired’. It’s hard to balance the pride in your amazing accomplishments that you very much deserve to feel with the reminder that they don’t actually make you better than everyone else. I certainly haven’t mastered it, so good luck. 🙂

    You mentioned talking about grades and I think I can give some pretty specific advice, so here goes. I know at college a lot of conversation can revolve around grades, so you might not want to just stop talking about them. Try to focus any discussion on what the grade means for the person who received it and don’t mention numbers or letters unless the person you’re talking to does first. So you can say ‘I’m happy with the grade I got’ or ‘How do you feel about how that test/project went?’ or ‘grades aside, I wish I had done better/feel like I did well on this particular problem or part of the assignment’.

    For trying to understand more about how other people think, I recommend that you talk to them more. When I was in high school, I got a summer job that really opened my eyes. Instead of being surrounded by other students, I was suddenly talking to people who never went to college, people who were trying to save up for college, people who were working two jobs and taking night classes, basically just people who had completely different life stories than me. Straight-As, college, career is one path, but GED to department store job to selling stuff on etsy to opening a jewelry store is just as valid a path (and I am changing a few things but this is not too far off from some people I’ve talked to). But it’s a path you won’t learn about unless you talk to the people who are taking it. If it’s hard for you to meet people in real life, I highly recommend reading comments on this blog and following links to other blogs people sometimes mention. I personally like http://markreads.net/reviews/ because it’s basically a book club with a ton of really cool people. The best way to be more open-minded is to put different stuff in your mind.

    I think a bunch of people suggested that you take the opportunity while you are young and in school to have fun with your life. And this is great advice I’m sure but to me reading it feels a bit like pressure. Find things that are fun and do them, but I feel like to a lot of people our age that means go get drunk and do something stupid. If you don’t feel safe, don’t do it. There are other students who don’t want to break laws or get in trouble with their parents and hopefully you’ll be able to find them. Also, it’s not about have fun while you’re young, or it shouldn’t be. Think, are you happy with your life right now? Are you really just waiting to be done with school at which point you will have time for hobbies and fun and things you enjoy? You are currently living your life. Don’t wait until some nebulous point in the future to start having fun. If you’re happy as you are, fine, but otherwise start living now. There will always be school or a job and hopefully you will enjoy them, but you need to make time for yourself as well or you’ll burn out.

    I think if you’re asking these questions you’re on the right track! Good luck with the journey and please send some positive thoughts my way as I struggle with the same things.

  101. LW – you’re in what I call check box phase. Straight A’s. Check. Good job (eventually). Check. That’s fine, and goal setting is great, but I’d like to offer the thought (as others have above) that a lot of what make life meaningful isn’t grades, or houses, or looks, or cars or doing having the ‘right’ (approved of) thing, but things that you can’t measure. Like a fab time at a festival with friends where you laugh until you almost pee yourself, and then think about that all week and smile.

    My life got so much better when I realized the minimal effort I needed to put in to getting the good (approved of) things, because those can still important (particularly the grades – they can and do open some doors that you may want open) while still prioritizing the experiences that were new and wonderful or comforting and familiar, but not measurable in the same way. Reading for fun, volunteering, taking a walk with a friend…whatever.

    This is another way of saying don’t put all your spoons in one jar, figure out the minimal amount to get the jam you need from that jar, and spend the rest somewhere else.

    Also, try some non-graded volunteer work with the less fortunate than you. And try to learn a new skill that you are totally not familiar with and is outside of your comfort zone.

    See what happens.

  102. I always had good study skills and knew how to work hard, but one of the things I discovered through painful experience is that it’s extremely difficult to make good decisions even just about career goals, if you’ve never done very much other than study. Studying something in a course is a completely different experience than doing a job that requires studying that subject. That’s true even of academia (as I learned from experience) – doing research to discover new knowledge is entirely different from taking a course, and just because you like one doesn’t tell you all that much about whether you’ll like the other. It’s very easy to end up in a position where you have studied yourself into a specialised field that you end up being miserable in, or spent years in a program only to discover that what you’d really love to do doesn’t require it. I even realised this in high school, but didn’t know what to do about it except ask adults I knew what I should study next. And they didn’t have a clue, really, even the ones who supposedly knew me well.

    Get out and do other stuff, LW. Get to know yourself, develop your personality in all kinds of directions, get to know the world. Parties may not appeal to you, but find hobbies, sports, part-time jobs, charities. And I don’t mean a list of things to pad out your résumé, I mean genuine exploration, with mistakes, dead ends, ‘wasted’ time, and things that make no sense but that you love. You will grow so much, and learn so much about yourself and others and the world.

  103. LW, I could have written this letter myself when I was in high school. I cared so much about grades that I basically had 1 friend and my only real interests were drawing, reading, and video games (coincidentally, things I was “good” at). My parents had been teaching me since as long as I can remember that grades were the most important thing and I needed good grades so I could go to a good college and then get a good job (I can see now how that is not the only road). I was also told that I was very smart and I barely had to study – I just catch on quickly and have more-or-less a photographic memory.

    Since grades were so important to me (literally a part of my being at the time), like you, I became very frustrated with my peers who were “stupid” and “not trying” and “not caring.” As such (plus being painfully shy), I was very isolated and I found out later that many of my peers felt that I was “arrogant” – and I didn’t even talk about grades except with my 1 friend.

    It wasn’t until college when I got away from my parents (and into a peer group that I could relate to more easily [we were all engineers]) that I finally started realizing that there was more than “one true path” of life and that other things could matter just as much, if not more, than grades. I found out that I could have a social life and develop hobbies while still maintaining good grades. Like you, I saw anything less than an A as failure – when I got my first C in college (physics with a poor teacher [so bad that he was fired a quarter later]), I was mad until I realized that it didn’t really slow me down – I retook the class with a much better teacher, so I learned a lot, even though I only came out with a B. Then when I got to grad school, I finally realized how little grades matter. Now that I have my professional licenses, I can definitively tell you how little grades matter – not once was I asked my grades; I had passed by Boards and gotten notarized letters that I am a good person and those were the only things that mattered. I realize it is what I /learned/ and the /skills/ I developed that matter – not the grades. Like the Captain said, grades are just a metric. What you learn and how you apply it is what matters.

    Like I said, for me it took time and getting out of a toxic environment before I could finally and truly let go of grades and their importance to me. I am in another part-time program right now and I can’t tell you how little the grades matter to me (well, they matter a little as in, I don’t want to truly fail, but if I get a C, whatever). The program is serving its purpose – giving me access to new information and helping me defer my student loans while my business gets financially stable (it’s there, hooray!). The most important things to me now are my business and my life – I am not going to stress out over grades because that will interfere with both of those things.

    You need to figure out what truly matters to you and do what you need to do to make your goals come true. If your goals require good grades (mine did), then keep your grades on your priority list – but they do not need to be #1, #2, or even #3. Don’t let grades prevent you from living your life. (That was my biggest complaint about how my parents focused so much on grades – I was so lonely and unhappy in high school because I basically wasn’t allowed to socialize or do anything but school work and clubs that were grades-related.)

  104. I really wanted to leave a comment because I relate so much to this topic! I always got great results in school and received a lot of praise for it (from parents and teacher and even schoolmates) and “being smart” became really central to my identity and it caused me a lot of problems.

    I agree with Captain Awkward: grades are meaningless. They will stop having any importance once outside of school and I suggest you brace for it, LW, because I suspect right now you are quite addicted to feeling superior to your classmates, and without a quantifiable measure of your worth it is likely your self-esteem will plummet.
    Also, I would like to add to the captain’s explanation about what a grade is and isn’t that often grades aren’t even objective and teachers probably see you in a favorable light and overlook your mistakes while maybe for similar work your less overachiving classmates get a harsher scrutiny and get only a B (I don’t know about grading in the US but wherever there is some subjectivity in the grading process bias is bound to come in).

    All the superiority that you feel now towards other people for not getting the very best grades is the self-hate and shame you will feel for yourself the first time you will fail at something (and it will happen, obviously).
    But I also think that all the superiority that you feel towards your classmates may be a defense mechanism because maybe you feel insecure about other aspects of yourself that you feel you are allowed not to work on because you are smart and great at school so who cares about the rest? I think that if you are honest with yourself you will realize that those other parts are important too, being social and having friends and going to concerts and having adventures and, especially, having a sense of self worth not tied to academic achievement (!!!), all those things will make you a happier person and shying away from it just because you are scared will just make you miserable in the long run.

    Anyway, this is my experience, I know it is very hard to let go of it and the captain’s advice is spot on, especially, in my opinion, 1) stop comparing your grades to other people’s, stop asking other people and stop telling them 2) learn how to fail and still feel good about yourself

    Interacting more with other people will teach you that just because someone does not perform well in school it doesn’t mean that they are slackers or dumb.

  105. LW, I work as a manager in a STEM field. And I would not hire you to come work for me, even if you got straight As all through college. Someone who gets straight As isn’t taking hard enough classes, or isn’t challenging themselves enough with things outside of the classroom. You are not really challenging yourself, because if you were, that A would be a B sometimes.

    Here are the things I want in people that I work with:
    1. Ability to communicate complex concepts to people who are unfaimliar with them, and this part is key: Without making those people feel stupid. Some people are just not exposed to certain concepts, or are quicker to grasp things than others, and making them feel bad about that is the quickest way to build resentment and make your work life harder.
    2. Critical Thinking Skills. Problem solving, poking holes in lines of reasoning, troubleshooting. Can you figure out why two numbers don’t match? Or what is wrong with a program?
    3. Ability to learn from mistakes and move forward. Everyone I work with makes mistakes, lots. And I have to be like ‘Here is what you did wrong” and what I need is people who can look at that, learn from it, and not make that mistake again.

    As far as knowledge of the subject matter goes, that is a distant 4th or possibly 5th after just generally not being a jerk. And even then I wouldn’t measure that as much by text book knowledge as I would experience and understanding.

    My suggestion for you, perhaps to go along with the Captain’s journal, is to think about what you want out of the rest of your life. YES you’ve spent the first 17 years in school, learning and preparing. But in 4/5 years you’re going to be starting a whole new life, one without tests, or papers or teachers. While the skills you learn in school will be useful, they will not be everything.

    Think about what you want your job to look like. Working with people? do you want to work in management? do you want to be a highly trained expert in a certain field (Caled a SME) or do you want to work for yourself eventually? Research careers and jobs, find people who will take you to work with them, or internships.

    And then think about what skills people really need for those careers. Beyond an A in Economics.

    I also really encourage you to have a passion in your life beyond work or school. Sometimes work/school is bad, sometimes youd on’t do well, your classes are hard or boring. And having something else that you LOVE (note, love, not necessarily are good at) can help you through those times. Right now you seem to be putting all of your joy/skill/effort/focus into school, and someday that wont be there. Having something else, or multiple something else’s can help you through those times.

  106. The advice to have fun! is really great, but there is a chance LW is reading this and hearing “CONFORM! DO LIKE EVERYONE ELSE! EVEN IF YOU’RE UNCOMFORTABLE!” . I think I would have if 17 year old me were reading this.
    So, just in case these messages are getting filtered that way, I’d like to say that having fun does not HAVE to mean going to festivals/parties/etc if that’s not your thing. You don’t HAVE to drink, you don’t HAVE to party, you don’t HAVE to kiss people.

    I’m pretty sure the commenters mean something more like the Captain’s advice above, to try new things and change your perspective maybe?
    And just because an activity doesn’t fit into your current worldview or doesn’t obviously benefit your goals right now, doesn’t mean that activity is bad or that the people who enjoy it are wrong.
    So, maybe join a club, even if it’s not academic. Make friends with your classmates and see what non-school-stuff you enjoy together. Get into sports/TV shows/movies/etc that you can get together with fellow fans to watch. Make friends online and off campus. Stay up all night gaming. All of this and none.

    It’s about making memories *in addition to* your schooling, not about replacing caring about grades with caring about other things.
    Good luck!

  107. School will come to a close and there will be no more grades, and then how will you define yourself? Brilliant people can get bad grades, people can be incredibly knowledgeable about something apart from school. There is no such thing as one thing to measure how intelligent people are, not grades, not tests, not IQ, there is so much more about people. Not only that, but do you have any idea why they don’t care as much as you do? I love learning, I love school, I was on a track to get into some incredibly Marine Biology and that all stopped senior year because my anxiety was out of control and I couldn’t care. I didn’t feel like I COULD succeed so I didn’t try. Learn why they don’t care as much as you do, if not just to understand, but maybe so they can help you learn to stop putting so much weight into grades, because the rest of the world doesn’t.

  108. When I was at school, grades were all-important to me. I was The Clever One. My parents would be disappointed with me if I got under 90% in an exam (yeah, SERIOUSLY). Yet I still didn’t do the work. I was the despair of everyone.

    Turns out I was suffering from undiagnosed depression. And believe me, nothing messes with your ability to Get Stuff Done than depression; and it presents differently in children and young teens so is way harder to spot.

    Not everything in life is rational.

  109. So, about this:

    “Remove the word “stupid” from your vocabulary as a thing you say & think about other people. ”

    I can think of exactly ONE person I’m in regular contact with, who I can honestly only describe as stupid.


    Person and I work together. They are as thick as two short planks and that’s about the most G-rated description you’ll ever hear about their intellectual capability. Sometimes–and in my current job this is true–you just need somebody with a good strong back. The rest of us know that this person really isn’t smart, and we work to make sure they is never put in a position that will either exceed their abilities, nor in a situation that will jeopardise that good strong back and thus this person’s ability to live indoors and eat hot food. And while this person really, really, really is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, they are still hard-working, functional, and fundamentally decent right down to the bottom of their soul.

    Yes, there are stupid people out there. In my experience, the truly stupid (and I’m excluding the actually mentally disabled/non-neurotypical here) are quite uncommon. What IS common is, uneducated, ill-educated, not formally educated, and self-educated. If you’ve read this and are in to self-reflection, you might consider thinking on that.

  110. I was one of the smart kids in school, and grades were important to me. But it took me a long time to realise that the academic intelligence I had is not the only kind of intelligence. And that all kinds of intelligence are just as important as each other.

    For example, I had a friend who was a car mechanic. He was very good at his job, and at anything else that required that sort of mechanical intelligence. I can’t drive (he tried to teach me once and swore never again…) – let alone even know where to start with a car engine!

    Another friend of mine absolutely hated school and anything academic, but she is a fantastic painter and sculptor – her intelligence is strongly visual and artistic, whereas I can just about draw a stick figure.

    Those are just two examples of different (and equally valid) kinds of intelligence. And I am sure that, as it was for me and everyone else, the people you’re at school with have different kinds of intelligence, as well as different levels of ability and different approaches to life too.

    Good luck!

  111. LW, I could echo everything everyone else is saying here. I too was a Smart Kid who got all the As, sailed through high school and college and had national competitive scholarships and etc. and etc. And then when I got to grad school, grad school almost destroyed me because I wasn’t used to having experiments fail, or having to work hard, or getting papers back covered in red ink, or, worst of all, having to direct myself in an open-ended situation that was different than the “learn this thing here the way I tell you to” that I had experienced all the rest of my life to that point.

    But I don’t want to talk about that, I want to talk about the impression you leave: that is, reference letters. Also like many here, I’m a college professor now, and I write a lot of reference letters for students for graduate programs, for internships, for jobs. The easiest ones to write are the ones from the B or C students who have other things going on in their lives as well. I can talk about their dedication, how often they came to see me for help, how they don’t give up, how their lives are rich with evidence that they seek out activities wherein they help other people, follow their passions, make a difference in the world. I can write paragraph after paragraph about them, and talk about how they are so much more than the sum of their grades. But the straight-A students? The ones who focus all their attention on school? Those are the hard letters to write. I can say they did well in class. I can say it didn’t seem like much effort for them to do well, or that they seemed to work hard and did well. And… that’s about it. If that’s all they’ve done, there’s not much to say. There’s not much to make them interesting to themselves or to anyone else. Believe me, I understand – I was exactly that person too. But now that I’m on the other side of it, my perspective is so much different. I wish I had taken more time in college to do fun things. I wish I knew more about myself and what other kinds of things I might be good at, and how I could feel more useful in the world. And now even as a teacher, the one person you’d expect to care about grades, I just…don’t. Not really. I like my students, and I like talking with them, and I love when they stop by and see me, and I never think of them in terms of what grades they each make. It takes effort to remember what their grades were, and I don’t most of the time. They’re just cool people. So don’t be afraid to inhabit yourself more and explore more of what makes you tick, even at the expense of getting an A- or a B now and then. There’s a really neat person hiding out behind that textbook, and you can let them out once in awhile.

  112. Yes, and at least in my university, the grad students who work part time as teaching assistants and do all the marking in most classes get paid a set rate per course, based on a projection calculated (well, pulled out of the air, really) at the beginning of the semester and do not get paid anything extra if it takes them extra hours to mark the assignments.

    And having all the naming conventions right can be the difference between 100 assignments to mark at an average of 5 minutes each, so 500 minutes or about 8 hours for the whole stack, vs half of them taking 10 minutes, so an extra 250 minutes, so an extra 4 hours. For which we do not get paid. Because ‘it should only take you 8 hours to mark that many assignments and we don’t have the funding budgeted for this course to pay for more hours or hire an additional teaching assistant.’

  113. Now that I am a college teacher, I can tell you pretty much for sure: Grades don’t measure your intelligence or even your knowledge of a subject.

    I would love it if kids were given teaching experience purely for this reason. (I’m sure there are dozens of other good reasons, but this one…yeah.)

  114. Like everyone else here in the comments, I see myself in you, LW. I also can say that grades don’t matter as much as you think they do. Personally, the grade I’m proudest of is the C I got in physical chemistry II, the class where tests reduced me to tears of frustration multiple times, because I worked so hard for it (also because I was ‘dealing with’ (ie living with but ignoring) serious mental health issues at the time). Not that I’m not proud of my A’s in organic chemistry (no, I am, honestly), but I didn’t have to work for those. I studied for about half the times that my friends who got B’s did just because it made sense to me.

    Things that helped (and still help me) remember that grades are not the be-all-end-all: having friends who are not students. Seriously, go find a hobby where you can meet some awesome slightly older folks who aren’t students anymore. Some of them went to university and graduated summa cum laude; some of them barely graduated from high school and unless you ask them about a.) their current job and b.) their past in school, you honestly won’t be able to tell the difference most times. One of my best friends is retired and worked odd jobs all his life (most recently: a prison guard); his girlfriend just quit her job in academia that required a PhD to be in retail but live in a geographic area she wanted. Some friends never graduated from college and work odd jobs, others are currently in PhD programs, one is a physician’s assistant. It does wonders to combat the mindset that “grades and school are everything and everyone who doesn’t value them are stupid” because yo, you meet these people and they’re not stupid; they’re incredibly smart and cool and awesome people. But seeing them as whole, unique people opens the possibilities for you–maybe you do like learning and school and you want to go into academia! Maybe you like learning and school, but you need a job where you’re active to be happy! Both of these things are equally valid!

  115. Can’t resist weighing in here. I’m a university professor. To The Overachiever— I love having people like you in my classes. But I love working with the supposed “slackers” as well. There are a lot of different learning styles, and many layers of “lesson” that can be taken from a college or university class. The students who place a high, “overachieving” priority on my classes are choosing one approach to learning from me. The students who sometimes choose to prioritize other things instead— whether it’s their families, jobs, or just partying on the weekend— are choosing to learn in another way. As a teacher, I believe you can learn from *anything* you experience. A weekend party may not have the *same* value as a class session, but there’s no real way to say that it has *less* value— or greater value.

    For that matter, I’ve found grades don’t correlate that strongly to how much someone is learning from my classes. To be sure, some students get an A because they really learned, and some students fail because they chose not to learn. But I’ve also had a lot of students who got low marks or failed, but clearly also worked hard and learned a lot. I’ve also occasionally seen a student get an A, then talked to them a year or two later to find that they barely remember my class, or anything I taught them in it.

    My point? When viewing your classmates, don’t focus on how they’re doing at school. Instead, try to really think about how they’re doing as *learners*. Figuring out the true answer to this takes an open mind, critical thought, and a willingness to really talk to your classmates about what they know about everything (not just school), and how they know it. And figuring that out will help you become the best learner you can be, too!

  116. Hi LW! I see a lot of commenters focusing on your parents, but here’s the thing: I was home educated (home schooling = American term, home education = UK term). I was also the youngest of three. I’m wondering if you are also a younger sibling? Because judging your intelligence relative to other members of your family when you’re comparing yourself, at, say, 13, to them at 15 and 17, is going to give you some really skewed results. If that’s the case for you, please don’t take those results as guaranteed truth forever; they’re not.

  117. When my DH was eleven, his father asked him to name the most important element of a person’s character. The correct answer was supposed to be ‘intelligence’. My husband’s reply was ‘compassion’. There’s a quote that says something like, people won’t remember how much money you made [or what your grades were, for that matter] but they’ll always remember how you made them feel.

    I was you, LW, until I ran up against an academic challenge I simply couldn’t master (and haven’t to this day, forty years later). Despite having an incredibly dedicated and patient teacher who went out of his way to work with me, I simply couldn’t grasp the principles he was trying to convey. He gave me a passing grade out of mercy, and made me promise I’d never take another class in that subject as long as he was in the school system. So I didn’t learn that subject, but I did learn something I have come to regard as much more important: compassion for and understanding of the kids who struggled with subjects I just breezed through. And I have always remembered that teacher fondly, despite his association with that insurmountable challenge, because he made me feel like a good and valuable person who simply didn’t have a good grasp of that particular subject.

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