If You Were a 17-Year-Old Out of High School, What Would You Do With Your Life?
I tested out of high school two years early, and lately I’ve just become so stuck and cynical of life. I don’t know what I’m missing and why I’m stuck. I don’t know where to move on to.
I’ve been going to talk therapy once a week (which barely helps).
This question originally appeared on Quora.
Answer by Eva Glasrud,
I'm not a licensed clinical psychologist or anything, but I do have a bachelor's and master's in social psychology from Stanford. So here's my take on your situation, which is based on many, many assumptions that may or may not be true.
You are a high-achieving individual. You are talented and gifted, and you worked hard enough to test out of high school one or two years early. That's really great. Congratulations on your achievements.
BUT. There is a cost associated with your achievements.
You spent your childhood and adolescence being good at stuff. You got up, went to school, did your extracurriculars, did your homework, and went to bed. While that may have kept you stimulated and busy and even entertained, it prevented you from developing leisure skills.
You don't know what you're passionate about or what takes your breath away. You have spent very little time entertaining yourself. Your free time has almost always been structured. You have done what you thought you should do or were told you needed to do to succeed.
I did my master's research on exactly this. Here's what I learned:
Playfulness/leisure skills are not traits that you were born with. They are skills.
Adolescence is the time when most people develop these skills. But kids from high achieving backgrounds (like yours) miss out on almost all of the opportunities to develop these skills. In that way, you are stunted.
Technology doesn't help. When you work your ass off all day at school and extracurriculars, you're often too burned out to do something that takes your breath away during your free time. Instead, you passively entertain yourself with (/are entertained by) technology. It's easy. It's obvious and overt. You don't have to think. You just have to watch. Look. Click. Button mash.
Because of that, your life lacks passion. It lacks activities or causes that are meaningful to you. So you feel stuck and cynical. Who wouldn't?
Hell, according to The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine, Ph.D., many kids in your situation are so depressed they're carving words like "empty" into their arms.
My guess is that talk therapy isn't helping because most therapists suck. (I've never been to therapy myself, but I've heard stories.) They think their job is to, like, sit there and listen and "support." When what they should be doing is calling you out.
Instead of saying, "I can see why that would be frustrating for you," and, "How did you feel about that," they should be saying, "I can understand why you responded that way, but you do realize that's why so many people don't invite you to their events, right?"
I don't know what you're talking about in talk therapy. But I'm guessing your therapist isn't calling you out enough. Or it could be that you're not actually doing anything that requires being called out on, but the therapist is more of a shoulder to cry on than a source of actionable advice.
So I'll try to give you some.
You are feeling dispassionate and stuck because you have stunted leisure skills and your daily activities lack meaning (or maybe not — remember, this is all based on an assumption). This makes you lost and uncertain about what to do with your life.
I'm sure someone's already told you to take a gap year. And I think that's the right thing for you. I don't think you're necessarily ready to do something self-directed, because
1. You're young, and
2. You probably don't have a lot of travel experience.
But there are tons of gap year programs available. And right now — right now! literally! deadlines are RAPIDLY approaching — is when you need to start applying to them.
There are hundreds of programs you could choose from. The five best possible programs (trust me — I've studied them all extensively) are:
1. Semester at sea study abroad programs
2. Where There Be Dragons – Summer, Gap Year & Semester Study Abroad Programs for High School & College Students in Asia, Africa & Americas
3. Carpe Diem Gap Year Programs
4. Gap Year Programs with CIEE
5. SYA Vietnam Gap Year
So pick one (or all five) of these and start your applications. Right now.
If you think cost will be an issue, you can definitely apply for a scholarship. All of these programs have some sort of financial aid program.
Or, check out this article: An Affordable Gap Year. It has lots of great information about jobs, volunteer positions, and internships.
So there's your long-term plan. A voyage of discovery that you can embark on in a couple of months. But what about right now?
Work on your leisure skills. First off, I have no assumptions about whether or not you use any drugs or alcohol. But if you do use illicit substances, STOP NOW. Or at least cut back majorly. Because they're a crutch. You can use them to cut loose and disinhibit. But that isn't going to help you develop leisure skills. It is going to keep you feeling the way you do now forever. So no more. Not till your life is fun and meaningful without them.
That was the easy part. Now the hard part.
Start looking for opportunities for fun, learning, and recreation. Sign up for a class — fitness, arts, or whatever. Register as a free agent for a city sports league. Try out for a play at your community theater. Volunteer at the humane society (or somewhere else, if you're not into dogs). Buy a Groupon for climbing classes or dance lessons. Go to that weird little museum you've never been to before — it could be really interesting!
Plan a party. It could be just for you and a few good friends, or it could be a little bigger. Think very carefully about the kind of party you'd like to plan and prepare for. Maybe it could be a beach bonfire. Or maybe pizza and karaoke. Or maybe you want to, like, dig a big hole and have an igloo party. I don't know. It just has to require creativity and effort on your part. So not a party where people stand around and talk. AND NO DRUGS OR ALCOHOL. This isn't an exercise in disinhibition. It's an exercise in thrill and experience seeking.
Do something bad. Like, maybe a little illegal. Or maybe something you don't quite have the balls to do. Like, order a pizza and say you have a coupon you don't really have. Or sneak into a hot tub at a hotel. It doesn't matter what exactly it is. Just do it. Push your own boundaries a little bit. Be creative.
Buy someone you love a present. You can pick who. Spend $10. Not a penny more. This is about thought, not cost. But it has to be a really, really good present. So think about them very carefully. What do they want? What do they need? What don't they even know they want?
These are four things you can do to get the ball rolling. Once you've got a little momentum, keep it going. Plan a road trip. Or don't plan one and just do it. You can totally do it. It's not too late. It's really just the beginning.
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