Bullish Q&A: Win the Game That Excites You – On Matching Your Life to Your Strengths

WintheGameThatExcitesYou

Dear Jen,

I entered high school with great ambition, messed up, and wound up going to my safe school for college. This was the biggest setbacks of my life, and I vowed I would never get off track again. College would be where I would redeem myself. 

I did well my freshman year, but come sophomore year, I let things slip. Not usually a procrastinator, I procrastinated. Once someone who was ready to jump out of bed before her alarm went off, I now stayed in bed for about an hour after it first started ringing.

Classes were harder, and I am nowhere near where I want to be at. Everything seemed to fall through. 

I tried every trick in the book to try to get my spark back. I reached out to past mentors. I made vision boards. I tried revisiting my past. I would get a short burst of inspiration, but it would always go away within a day or two. 

How do I get my motivation back?

How do I make sure this doesn’t happen again? 

How do I revamp my work ethic?

I know I can do better. I just don’t know how to go back to being the go getter that I used to be, and was hoping that you could point me in the right direction because this slump has gotten old.

Confused but Capable

Dear Confused but Capable,

I graduated from high school with a less-than-stellar GPA, but lots of weird, interesting accomplishments—many of them outside of school—that few or no other teenagers had. This got me into a good university.

The summer before attending university, I was sent a beautifully bound course catalog. I lovingly marked it up with pen—I wanted to take all the classes. 

I wrote a very serious list of goals on a sheet of notebook paper. One of them was to really study, and turn things in on time, and pay attention to the requirements for the class instead of learning in my own way and ignoring what I didn’t think was important, and ultimately be valedictorian!

What actually happened was that I nearly flunked out during my first semester. Sophomore year, I pulled it together, but I had also started doing all these crazy projects outside of school—sound familiar? By junior year, my grades were consistently lackluster, as I did the projects I thought were worthwhile and ignored the assignments I thought ill of. I was also running a company by that time. I lost interest in most classes. I majored in philosophy because it was the only thing I didn’t find repugnant by that time. By the time I graduated, my GPA was 2.71—and I had eight part-time employees.

In other words, my four years of university looked very much like my four years of high school: “Sure, I didn’t do half the things I was supposed to do, BUT LOOK AT THIS THING I MADE WHILE EVERYONE ELSE WAS BEING AN OBEDIENT SHEEP!”

That’s just who I am.

If I went back to school and had a specific goal, like med school, I’d find coping strategies and accountability partners and a friendly dean and maybe a therapist to work against my own personality type in order to get top grades in a slate of pre-med classes. And I’d hate it and feel stifled, but I’d do it, because it would be a limited period of going against the grain in order to achieve a goal.

But I think if you had a specific goal like that, you would’ve mentioned it.

If your goal is more like, “Get a degree and make an awesome life for myself,” then work with who you are. Who you are is not a straight-A student. That’s okay. It also seems like you are the sort of person who is bored by doing the same thing for four years. Me too. A lot of people need a new project every few months or they’re terribly bored. A lot of jobs are very much like that.

So, first, do some triage on your university career. 

Try the tips in Behind on a Deadline? Read This. I’m specifically thinking of: 

Was your vision for the work way more than what was really needed? Purge your mind of your original plan and imagine the person receiving the work. What is the fastest way to make that person happy?

You may find that your original vision had more to do with expressing yourself and making the world in your image than it really did with getting the job done efficiently. 

Examine the classes you’ve taken so far, and which went better than others. It may be that the format of the class is more important to you than the content. Do you do better with weekly quizzes than end-of-semester papers? Do you do better in discussions than lectures, or vice-versa? Do you stick with the classes that have in-person study groups, and social pressure to succeed? Maybe you end up majoring in something that you didn’t think you’d major in. 

What are all these other things you’re trying to do? Internships, extracurriculars—what’s the point? Are they fun? Will they help you get a job? Will they help you network? Just because you’re passionate about a topic doesn’t mean you need to be in a college club about it. You can really care about the environment and also decide that hanging out with other college students who love the environment doesn’t do much to help the environment. This isn’t high school where you’re supposed to do a certain number of extracurriculars in order to present yourself as “well-rounded.” That is no longer a thing. Don’t do any extracurriculars unless they serve some purpose in your life.

Read the blog of Scott H. Young, who writes about learning effectively. Start with How to Ace Your Finals Without Studying.

Cynical as it may sound, the ability to bullshit your way through class and get good-enough grades with the minimum effort is actually one of the most important life skills you can develop. There’s a lot of bullshitting in life. In many jobs, the thing you’re being asked to do is actual bullshit and everyone knows it (the larger the company, the more this seems to happen)—so it’s not like there’s a real thing to be done and you’re bullshitting and that’s bad, it’s more like reacting appropriately to the situation. Bullshit for bullshit. Don’t stress. In these cases, think like a bro.

And then maybe there’s a class here or there, or some very specific subject matter, that merits non-bullshit: something so important it deserves your full investment and painstaking care. Great! You only need to find one of those in life. If you muddle through 30+ classes in a college education and find one class that really changes your life, and gives you an idea of what you want to do with the next few decades, fantastic! That’s better than a lot of people do.

And maybe that doesn’t happen. Maybe you just slog through and get a degree.

Unless you apply to graduate school or to a Wall Street job, you don’t get asked for your grades a whole lot as an adult. As long as you have the degree, that’s enough. What you put on a resume is usually the name of the university, the years you attended, the name of your degree (B.A., Philosophy), any major honors you received (cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa), and possibly one extracurricular activity if you were in a leadership role and it’s relevant to the job. Some people do put a GPA, but only if it’s super-high. It’s not a problem not to include it. If someone asked me my GPA in a job interview, I’d laugh and say, “Oh, it was super-low! I was the kind of student who picked one big area of intellectual inquiry and did that to the exclusion of all else. I had a lot of focus for the big things—and some pretty abysmal grades in World Music.” Haha! See, I played that pretty well. Not that anyone would ever ask me that, because I’m over 30 and that’s insane.

What I’m saying is work with who you are. 

Do some networking. Use college to network. Fortunately, college is the least fake, least schmoozy time to network, because in college the way you network is just by making normal friends. I talk more about that here. It’s a long game (it takes about ten years for those friends to become powerful professional allies), but one worth playing. Also, the side benefit is actual friends.

There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re burned out after 14+ years of education. I think it breeds neuroticism in young people to spend so long not doing anything real. When I was ten or twelve, I did a lot of crafts, not because I loved crafts, but because it was the only way I could do something that wasn’t a pretend/practice/kid version. When I crocheted a scarf, it was a functional scarf, not a toy scarf. I was so fucking sick of play versions of things: plastic ovens, Barbie cars, shoebox dioramas. It’s not healthy for everything a twenty-year-old does to be pretend.

If that’s your problem, good. 

There are a bunch of straight-A students out there who will do great if they go into a big corporation that assigns them a group and a really specific job to do with lots of feedback and performance reviews—and they’ll be lost, totally lost, at anything else. They need structure and praise and rules and organizations in order to function.

Turn your weaknesses into strengths. Keep your grades high enough to graduate, but you’re not going to win at that game. Win at the game that excites you.

Jen