This is the second part of a series. Read the previous part here, or the introduction here.
If you were to draw up a timeline of how high school is supposed to go (according to society), it would look something like this:
In theory, the entirety of high school is meant to be a time for us to find out what we want to do later in their lives (on top of learning and doing academics). But realistically, we only have the first two years of high school to do so, since the second half is all about college preparation.
In either case, the critical point is supposed to come at junior year course selections, because then it’s time for us to decide what route we want to take for the rest of high school: an academics-based one, a passion-based one, or, ideally, a combination of the previous two.
(On a completely unrelated note, don’t you think it’s funny how colleges usually make students declare a major by the end of their sophomore year? What a coincidence!)
So we all choose based on our own unique high school experience thus far, and the rest becomes history…except it doesn’t, because this isn’t how it actually goes, right? Most of us view junior year course selections (or any year, really) as an annual chore, not as some monumental decision.
What’s more is that, as we discussed last time, the overwhelming approach to high school is the Academic Route. There is no singular reason behind this trend, but rather, a multitude of them, which come from different angles in our lives.
Let’s take a closer look at each.
High school marks a critical coming-of-age period in our lives. Up to this point, most of what we’ve been doing has been at the mercy of our parents, but it’s around now that we theoretically gain more independence to try new things out for our own sake. We gain greater responsibilities, experience new emotions associated with growing up, and are exposed to real world topics like politics, ethics, morality, and justice. It’s a time of maturity. It’s a time for self-discovery.
So it should be understandable that the interests we develop around this time are not necessarily going to be super sophisticated—after all, we’re in the very early stages of crafting a self-identity—yet there’s somehow an expectation for us to find an everlasting passion…in less than two years’ time, at the age of 15.
Consequently, very few of us are lucky enough to start virtually from scratch and find a passion, and then go on to commit to the Passion Route. Shocker.
The Academic Route is the more popular and more rational choice because it’s structured, safe, and reliable.
There’s a predictable input-output quality to the school system: do your homework, and you will get compensated accordingly with grades. Study, and it will improve your odds of doing better on a test. Barring unusual circumstances, there always will be a grade present by the end of the school year. Even if the process feels unbearable at times, the knowledge that there’s a guaranteed result makes it easier to put our heads down and grind through everything.
Meanwhile, there’s so much unpredictability that comes with the Passion Route. Results aren’t always guaranteed, and there’s the constant, looming opportunity cost: you could start a new project, but what if, after four months, it doesn’t go anywhere? You could’ve used that time to better your grades, or study for the SAT!
A lot of passion work also tends to be extremely subjective, on top of having rigorous objective standards—you’ve got to do phenomenal work and somehow distinguish yourself from others. Additionally, a crazy amount of passion is dependent upon natural talent, so not even all the hard work in the world can guarantee you the same level of success as others.
With this all in mind, it makes strategic and obvious sense to prioritize our time and effort into something that we know for a fact is going to yield us a result, and then spend our extra time exploring the unknown. This way, even if our attempts at finding a passion fall short, we will still have sufficient grades and test scores to fall back on, which top colleges require in the first place.
The most compelling reason for the Academic Route is the fact that it works. Not everyone can be a violin prodigy or a top artistic talent, we’re told, but if you work hard enough and secure those top grades and strong extracurriculars, you can still get into Stanford!
Today’s (stereotypically Asian) academic culture (which has evolved from get perfect grades to have strong extracurriculars on top of perfect grades) stems from the fact that, at one point in time, someone took a very hard look at the supposed high school timeline and asked:
Once people began realizing that this strategy worked, they started nudging the envelope further.
And then a little bit further.
While that may have done wonders for those pioneers, this getting ahead trend has only made it worse for everyone else over time. Because now, teaching pre-algebra to fifth graders is no longer a way to reliably get ahead of the pack, since so many others are doing the same. Now, there’s tacit pressure to get education and an emphasis on academics going earlier and earlier. Now, there are private elementary schools that charge absurd tuitions for “better education”.
Now, academic culture and the Academic Route have joined to form this vicious cycle: we see people succeed with the Academic Route, so the importance of academics becomes ingrained in our culture. And the more that the importance of academics is ingrained into our culture, the more we see people succeed with the Academic Route.
Deviating from the norm, in any situation, is an uncomfortable experience—and it’s no different with how we choose to approach high school.
When those of us decide to commit to extracurriculars instead of academics, most feel that occasional twinge of regret when we see our peers taking a bunch of honors or AP classes, while we ourselves are not.
It’s not constant, continual self pity and anguish—it’s just the small moments where we have to stay silent as we hear our friends complaining about a higher level class that we’re not in, it’s the creeping uneasiness we feel at 1 A.M when we don’t know where our project is going, it’s the overwhelming feeling that we’re taking the easy way out as our peers suffer from a more academic burden.
(What’s funny is that most people tend to be supportive of you and what you’re doing—the doubt and insecurity is usually self-imposed.)
By going with the Academic Route, we can gauge where we are compared to our peers with a quick glance over our shoulder, but we don’t always have that luxury with the Passion Route. All around, there’s just a lot of social anxiety that comes with the Passion Route, which makes for a lot of uncomfortable feelings, and results in easy decisions.
Most high schoolers are not as short-sighted as social media would have you believe.
We understand that college is not an end goal.
We understand that the point of high school should be to find something that we like, how the focus has instead shifted to getting into college, and why that’s bad. (How are we supposed to know what we want to do in college if we don’t spend time exploring interests in high school?)
We understand that the potential benefits of seeking out a passion include personal growth, fulfillment, and excitement—and that hey, everything might work out better than we thought; but even if it doesn’t, the process will serve as a learning experience.
But at the same time, we’re afraid. So, so afraid.
We’re afraid that we won’t find a passion in time. We’re afraid that even if we find a passion, it won’t make us stand out. We’re afraid that passion won’t be worth it. We’re afraid that while our peers are succeeding, we won’t be. We’re afraid of losing. We’re afraid of uncertainty.
And that fear is powerful—it’s overpowering. It quashes our will to test the waters, so instead we recede back into the safety of the familiar and predictable, rationalizing our inaction with the justification of let me worry about getting into college first, and then I’ll go look for a passion…or whatever.
It is frustratingly difficult to argue against this sentiment, and its effects are very real. This is why advice from high school graduates usually doesn’t help, because while they’ve been in our shoes at some point, and while what they’re saying is probably right, there’s a disconnect: they’re already past high school, but we’re stuck in the midst of it.
We want to trust you, but how are we supposed to know if what you’re saying about passion is right or not, while we’re still in high school? It’s only after we’ve graduated high school and spent a few years in college that we can look back and realize, oh, they were right, I should’ve spent more time exploring my interests then—and at that point, we can’t exactly do anything about it.
We want to trust you, but there’s always that haunting, toxic thought of, well, I wonder what would be different if I had done this instead of that. And most of us—while we’re still in high school—would rather regret not finding a passion than not taking the extra time to study for a test or two, because we’d prefer to be safe and not sorry when it comes to academics.
We want to trust you, but every time you bring up examples of people who’ve regretted not exploring their interests in high school, we think to ourselves, that’s not going to happen to me, because I’m going to figure everything out later. And who knows, maybe we will. Everyone makes it seem like we won’t, but…what if we do, you know?
We want to trust you, but really, what do you expect us to do, not try our very hardest to win the game of high school? College may not be an end goal, but it still is a goal nonetheless—and one that’s standing directly in our way, at that. How are we supposed to focus on anything else?
There may not be a checklist to get into college, or some clear-cut way to determine if certain actions will increase our odds of getting into one, but it definitely feels like we can draw some concrete conclusions—not getting that A in Precalculus probably wasn’t the deciding factor of the rejection from Stanford, but there’s no way that it could’ve hurt our chances, right?
Here’s the bottomline: for most of us, trying to succeed in high school is the most important thing in our lives right now. So we’d be stupid if we didn’t exploit the most successful strategy available to us, the Academic Route, to do so. It may not be the strategy that we’d go with if we had a literal choice, but that’s life: we can’t always get what we want.
“Reality,” as a wise man once said, “is often disappointing.”
Altogether, these five factors are a serious force to be reckoned with, because they hit us from virtually all angles of our psyche.
Consequently, the high school dynamic has shifted from the second half of high school being big, important years, to every year being big, important years, but with special emphasis on sophomore and junior year. In fact, it’s gotten to the point where most of us know how we’re going to approach high school before high school even begins.
So when it comes to those yearly course selections, most of us don’t really feel like there’s a choice to make, but rather, just an expectation to meet.
This all being said, for a lot of us, academics don’t feel good enough. We have dreams that we want to achieve. We long for meaning and fulfillment. We want to venture out and do interesting work.
When we first come to this realization, most of us optimistically turn to passion, to get away from academics, and in hopes of finding that special something. But, if you can guess from the title of this series, most of us end up turning our backs on passion—and that’s where we’re headed next.