On competitive Bay Area high schools and their rippling effects

(Reproduced from Medium)

I’ve often told people that my schedule in high school was a magnitude worse than my schedule in college for a multitude of reasons. Every day began at around 6:50 AM, if I could force myself to wake up, and ended at 6 PM, when I decided I was too exhausted from the entire day to force myself to do homework. I often slept until 2 AM, woke up groggy as hell, and studied until 5 AM, when I could finally get some shuteye before the day started all over again.

I chose such a schedule because essentially the mindset in Cupertino was that if you’re not pushing yourself like this, someone else probably is, and in such a darwinian environment it’s survival of the smartest. The ones who don’t try hard enough don’t get into the colleges they wanted to go to.

So I pushed myself to do an insane number of extracurriculars while trying to balance sleep and academics, and somehow expected to reap the benefits of my “hard work” when it was finally time to apply for colleges senior year of high school. I had a decent SAT score, good grades throughout the years, and what I thought was a pretty balanced personality (if that even counts for anything).

All it took was one shitty day in my senior year for me to break down mentally. It came in the form of a zero on a test which I actually did well on, but was completely voided because of irresponsibility on my part. In short, I accidentally took the test out of the classroom while it was still being graded, and my teacher, not giving me any special treatment, decided to zero out my test.

I was devastated, and I remember being really immature about it. This one test started to consume me. Running on high stress from my packed schedule and the toxic do-everything-for-college mentality, I started to calculate the chances of getting a good grade in this class, and how it would affect my college admissions. I started to think how pissed my mom and dad would be if this was the reason why I didn’t get into a good college, and a knot began to form in my stomach. I thought that everything was going to be ruined because I made this one mistake.

I remember getting home, 6 PM as usual, and I was too nervous to actually fall asleep. I remember sitting on the couch, waiting for my mom to come home, and thinking about what her reaction would be. Like most Asian parents, getting your kid to a good college was a top priority, and I already knew that my mom wasn’t an exception to this stereotype. I heard the garage open, and my mom walked into the living room, tired from her own day at work. My dad was out of the country on business trips most of my high school, so a lot of the time it was just me and my mom at home. We knew our routines pretty well, so she immediately knew something was wrong when she saw me sitting on the couch, not really moving.

“What’s wrong?”

I imploded. After years of being pressured to do well and compete with my peers, I just unravelled and started crying, trying to explain what happened. Rushing over, my mom tried to comfort me, but I eventually kept on saying the same thing over and over again.

“I’m not going to get into a good college. I’m not worth anything. I worked so hard and it’s all gone to shit.” I rocked back and forth on the couch. My mom, to my complete surprise, wasn’t angry at all. She hugged me and smiled.

“It’s okay, don’t worry about it. All that matters is if you’re happy.”

In my entire high school experience, I didn’t hear her or my dad ever say something like this to me ever. It made me feel so much better, and the knot in my stomach began to untie itself. She promptly took me out to my favorite restaurant to make me feel better. It was honestly one of the best things my mom could’ve done for me at that moment.

I often wondered why hearing my mom care about my happiness meant so much to me at that point, and after a few years I realized it was because it was so different from the toxic and formulaic environment I was used to pretty much all of high school. It was refreshing to hear that the only metric that really mattered to my mom at that moment was whether I was happy, not if my GPA was a 4.0 or if I got above a 2200 on my SAT test.

It’s a metric that so many people, not just parents, don’t really consider. We’re told that if we’re stressing about college and our academics, we should endure, even if it affects our happiness in the long run. We’re told that working hard now is essential to having fun later, when your life is actually in order and you’re not living under someone else’s roof. This mantra is hammered into your head until you start believing it yourself, which causes you to max out all the hours of your day to things that you think will get you into college, rather than to things you actually have a passion for.

I think one thing a lot of people don’t really talk about is the after effects of living in such an environment. Truth be told, the toxic environment can mentally affect your work ethic, your social life, and how you view your self-worth as a person into college and beyond. I see a lot of students from my area still pulling out their hair over an upcoming midterm, I see even more drinking themselves to death because they “literally don’t give a shit anymore,” which I find to be a common way of dealing with academic and extracurricular burnout. But most importantly, I see people bursting into tears because they still carry the heavy burden of doing well, because remember, fun comes later, not when you’re young and alive.

I’ve definitely felt all of these side effects my first two years of college. To be more specific, there were times when I was so burned out from everything that I just wanted to drink and black out. Now that I was away from home and learned what alcohol actually was, I could imbibe whenever I wanted to my heart’s content.

But as everyone finds out eventually, no amount of college drinking can fix a poor mentality and personal issues. Yet, I always see a lot of Bay Area kids going crazy at parties and raves because they never had the chance to do so in high school, and because they never had the chance to live a little. It’s literally taking the work hard now, have fun later mantra to an uncomfortable extreme.

For some people, the Bay Area mentality will just never be fixed, and others were still stuck trying to prove themselves well into college like me. It was mostly because I felt like I didn’t get to reap the benefits of working to the bone in high school, especially since I didn’t get into any of my first choices for college. I felt like I still needed to try to be able to match my peers, who were always posting what they were up to at better colleges on Facebook.

I was stuck trying to prove myself for a long time.

I finally started to emerge from it all at the end of my second year in college, and the beginning of my third year. There were two things that happened. The first thing that happened was having an internship in which I felt like I was stuck. My work hard, play later mentality “paid off” and I got the cushy, white-collar type experience which every parent views as the pinnacle of your child doing well. I think for awhile, I was telling myself I was supposed to be happy when deep down, I knew I still wasn’t. And that’s when the seeping bullshit started to emerge from it all.

I remember thinking, I worked so hard in high school and college for this? For a job that’s crushing my spirit and creativity, all for the sake of stability and comfort?

The fact is, it was too comfortable. I wasn’t moving or challenging myself or developing as a person. I literally could have stayed at this place for my entire life and not a thing would change. This made me extremely dissatisfied with my current path in life, and it made me realize there was probably more to life than just being the best academically, and then climbing the corporate ladder. If things like that led to the same docile cubicle, then I wasn’t having it at all. My mentality start to shift a little.

The second thing that happened was a deeply personal experience that completely pivoted my perspective on everything. I found out one night, on the eve of the second Friday of the fall quarter, that one of my close friends from high school unexpectedly passed away. For weeks I remained depressed, and I sought the comfort of many friends. And finally, when the smoke of my depression started to clear up, I saw all of the complete and utter bullshit I’ve been doing laid out right in front of me.

My friend did not live his life like I did in high school or in college. He did things that mattered to him deeply, while I mainly did things for the grade and the prestige. His passing taught me more about what I should be doing in my life than any lecture ever could, and that is doing what I love and trying to help people, things I’ve ignored since high school started.

It was a completely new kind of mentality. Not “work now, play later,” but rather “do what you care about, and the world will change with you.”

I wonder why this mentality doesn’t exist at competitive Bay Area high schools. I think part of it is because a lot of students growing up in such well-off areas are extremely sheltered from the difficult parts of life and from the experiences of other people. I remember talking to my brother about my departed friend, and I remember him saying that growing up, we never ever experienced such sad feelings because we grew up in such a bubble, where everything was taken care of for us. Not experiencing such things left us more time and emotional space to overly focus on the things we thought that mattered, namely grades. Soon our worlds revolved around getting “A’s”, rather than appreciating the loved ones and passions that were right there in front of us.

I also think this mentality doesn’t exist because we’ve hammered the idea that it’s unsafe to diverge from the common get-into-college formula too much. It’s actually really funny if you think about it, since SAT bootcamps all over the area will tell you more or less the exact fucking formula of how to get into a good college. Paraphrasing, it goes something like this:

To get into a good college, you need to at least have a 2200 on your SAT score, take the SAT Math II for sure, be the president of a club, have a lot of summer internships, and be able to do an open heart surgery, all by the time your senior year starts. Also, remember to have an unforgettable experience that changed who you are as a person, not because it’ll help you in life but because it’s something to write about in your admissions essay. That open heart surgery thing was a joke, taken from this satirical piece by the New York Times, but that’s pretty much the formula to the core. And parents and kids will eat that shit up because it’s easy to follow.

But like all difficult achievements in life, getting into college is not supposed to be easy or formulaic. If worthwhile accomplishments were formulaic, there would be a lot more successful startups and Nobel Prize winners. In fact, the most successful high school students (now college students) that I’ve gotten to know focused on one or two things that they really cared about, and are much better for it because it fueled a passion for something beyond high school. It wasn’t an extracurricular contrived purely for the purpose of getting into an Ivy League university, which happened to be a lot of what I focused on doing in high school.

Some students who are not from the Bay Area don’t get to pay someone to tell them this generic formula either, not just because their families can’t afford the ludicrous SAT bootcamp fees but because their area isn’t as well-off as somewhere like Cupertino. For example, one of my friends from another area in Northern California told his college counselor that he wanted to be the first one in his family to attend college, and the college counselor just laughed in his face.

At my high school, this would be unheard of. Counselors would go to the moon and back if it meant you had a slightly better chance of getting into a good university. My jaw literally dropped when my friend told me this for the first time.

We really don’t know how good we had it. A lot of people won’t appreciate the good parts of the Bay Area because so much of the culture is toxic and darwinian as hell. It’s funny how it’s the toxicity follows us and not the fact that there were so many people that cared for us and were rooting for us to be successful.

“Do what you care about, and the world will change with you.”

Since I’ve adopted this new way of thinking, I’m less stressed and more eager to do the things that I think will make me happy, such as signing up to study abroad and visiting new places every weekend, all while spending more time outdoors and on projects that genuinely interest me. The long term effects of this are tremendously noticeable. There are times now when I just can’t help but smile while walking down the street, not for any particular reason, but because I’m just so appreciative that I get to experience life in my own way rather than following a formula. There are times now when bad things can happen to me and I won’t implode because I know that my problems, given enough time, will eventually solve themselves. I now even laugh at that zero I got back in high school, not only because it was such a non-issue, but because I’m secretly thankful my teacher didn’t give me any special treatment, which is how most of the world works.

Being this positive is so much better than being on edge all of the time, and then using alcohol to drown out inner stress.

To be clear, it wasn’t just an overnight change in mentality. It wasn’t just like I snapped my fingers and all of the Bay Area mentality went away. It took a lot of practice; a lot more saying yes than saying no, a lot of pushing the edges of my comfort zone when I felt like I didn’t want to do something. It took a lot of reminders to not be so down when I got a shitty grade, that even having the opportunity to experience what a shitty grade was like was a blessing in itself. Brick by brick, I laid a good foundation, but it did take time to lay it out correctly.

Looking back at it all, I would say most students from my area who are now my age laugh at how stupid it all was. I especially think about how much better life is for me now than it was back when I was in high school, when I was constantly worrying about my future and what it would be like if I chose to attend a particular college. There were a lot of things I realized in retrospect. No matter where you end up going, you will love it. No matter where you end up going, you will meet great people that become your best friends, and you will meet stupid people who will piss you off. No matter where you end up going, a lot of your peers, even if they went to a university that’s ranked higher than yours, will end up in the same place as you.

But I think the most important thing that I realized for myself is that although a lot of student life is studying and stress, it is never a good idea to attach it with self-worth and your actual capabilities. A grade someone else assigns you does not mean whether or not you can actually achieve and do something really well. A grade is just a grade, but being happy is so much more than that.

What you do with your life is not a symptom of where you go, but rather the other way around. Do what you care about, and the world will change with you. There’s no reason why you can’t enjoy your work, and play at the same time 😄

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