The Failure is Failure

April 19, 2021 by Ishaan Koratkar

The guide to effectively fighting the US high school system if you are inside it.

High school children hate high school. They hate the way subjects are presented to them, and if they have bad grades, they hate the subject as well. Some of them manage to fool themselves and get good grades without understanding a lick of the material. The main reason they seem to hate school is focused on the freedom they don’t have. This essay won’t get you that freedom, but it will you the techniques required to be intellectually stimulated when inside Prison.

The biggest failure of the US school system (and probably most school systems) is failure itself. Getting something wrong is a red mark or a point deducted from a perfect score. Take languages. The way languages are taught in schools is nothing like how they are used.

If you look at the way infants pick up language, it’s through countless failures and mistakes. Over and over and over again they attempt to say things and put their thoughts into words. They fail at spelling, grammar, and arranging their sentences. But they don’t care! They keep going, embracing the mistakes, until they can talk with fluency. It’s because of failing that their brains can fine tune their language models.

Embracing the mistakes is something that’s fundamental to learning. In a 1978 study, Carol Dweck found the way school-aged children thought about their failure affected their success. By giving 5th graders hard puzzles, she observed that some of them hated challenges and wanted to stay wrapped in their comfort zone forever, while some loved the introduced challenge! They were curious to learn and get better, believing that intelligence could be changed.

School just emphasizes your failures and doesn’t tell you that getting things wrong is the start of wisdom! Instead of showing you that you can learn, they just deduct numbers from your GPA, slowly burning your chances in life. Why bother even trying in this damned and helpless place?

It’s because blaming the system for all your problems is the path to a victim’s mentality which is itself more problems. The better approach is to fix yourself[1]. This is how:

Ask questions even if they sound stupid. In fact, they it’s better that they sound stupid. Richard Feynman once remarked that when questions aren’t being asked, the material isn’t understood. Feynman was known for his deep understanding of physics which was built on his boldness to ask questions. Inspired by this, I have a goal to ask questions low level enough the teacher thinks I’m a fool.

Raise your hand to volunteer for things as if your life depends on it. The memories of those social events will stick in your head longer, as humans are highly social animals.

Love being wrong when you are. Manolis Kellis (one of the most cited computational biologists) said: “I love being wrong. [There’s] something about self-improvement. There’s something [about] how do I not make the most mistakes but attempt the most rights and do the fewest wrongs, but with a full knowledge that this will happen.”[2] The goal isn’t to get things wrong, but when you do, see them as opportunities to grow.

Be curious about the world around you and learn in your free time. School isn’t giving you tough material where you struggle to get the right answers. In your own time, take on projects that do. Become an expert.

Contact people to to learn the path to master where you are directing your efforts. Becoming good at something on your own is nearly impossible. You need to know the best strategies and paths to mastery. Making friends in the same pursuit will help you when it gets hard.

Be arrogant in the right way. If you look at the greats, they each seem to have a little flair of arrogance. Not in the sense that they think they are superior to others, but in the sense that their world is their playground, they’re space to make, build, and discover. Look at any successful politician. They are perfectly crazy to think that they can run for office and win, and they do it! This craziness to attempt hard things is what pushes you to be the best.

In summary, if you actually want to fight the system, learn to use it, even play with it. Getting good grades is important if you want to do cool things in life, even if you feel it doesn’t matter. High school is another thing we have to suffer through before we get to the interesting parts of life. In the mean time, learning habits such as asking low level questions will be useful forever, as shown by Feynman, and can fuel your curiosity too.

Better resources on this:

  1. How To Be a High School Super Star by Cal Newport
  2. Ultralearning by Scott H. Young
  3. What You’ll Wish You’d Known by Paul Graham
  4. Stripe co-founder Patrick Collison’s advice column

  1. My grandmother, who’s a psychiatrist, liked to say that you can’t fix people, you can only change the way you act around them. ↩︎

  2. ↩︎

2021/04/19 by Ishaan Koratkar