Being a dumbass: My experience as “The Underchallenged ‘Lazy Teenager'”

The Underchallenged ‘Lazy Teenager:’ Plenty of time to play videogames but not for school work. Here’s how to help the ‘lost boys‘” describes me from ages 10 – 14 or so. My Dad sent it to me, and he said that it describes me pretty well, because I was hard to motivate. This may also give me greater empathy and compassion for late bloomers than people who are high achievers—at least superficially—for their entire lives.

In middle and high school I had middling to terrible grades and failed or almost failed classes. Had you considered the 8th or 9th grade version of me you wouldn’t necessarily have seen a promising future. My parents were aware that middle and high schoolers who don’t do tolerably well in school tend to have not-bright futures, and they did a lot to try and get me to not be a dumbass. Some of the things they tried were not real successful and others were counterproductive, but it wasn’t easy to figure out why I wanted to play StarCraft and read pulp fantasy novels to the detriment of virtually everything else in my life. (Now I realize, too, that my parents were struggling with their own problems, mostly financial and social in nature, and did not have endless resources or energy to probe the psychological state of a thirteen or fourteen year old; teenagers are not known for their empathy skills. Still, as my Dad said recently, he couldn’t get me in part because he didn’t know why I behaved as I did. He was a very motivated student, primarily because he came from a blue-collar, immigrant family and the alternatives to school were highly visible and utterly dreadful.)

If this were a novel I’d have a tidy resolution and motivation for why I was the way I was, but I don’t. I don’t really know what was going on. Part of that is because our past selves become strangers, ever more poorly remembered over time. Clearly I was a depressed, unhappy loner and had a strong inferiority complex—but why? In an objective sense things were pretty good, or could have been, and I had a higher material standard of living and better safety than at least 90% of humanity. In some sense I knew there were children starving in Africa. For whatever reason I was unhappy about moving from California to Washington when I was ten, but normal kids are unhappy about new places and schools for a couple months, then they make new friends and get over themselves. Instead I stewed for half a decade.

The best I can say is that I didn’t care about school or much of anything at the time. I didn’t have a strong sense of the future, or that the future would be better than the present. Video games and fantasy novels provided an alternative life in the present. None of that, however, explains why I wouldn’t do the very small amount of school work that would’ve made a lot of things much easier. Some questions have no real answer and the “why” of my behavior from 10 – 14 or so may be one of them.

The odd thing, too, is that high school wasn’t challenging. Doing a modicum of homework and studying—on the order of 20 minutes a day—would’ve yielded straight As, or close to it (as I did as a junior and senior).* That would’ve made my later life much easier at little cost. On some level I knew that, which makes the failure to act all the stranger and less explicable.

What changed? Growing up is a plausible answer. One big turnaround moment came from working at Old Navy one summer. Watching adults work for almost no money, under the supervision of controlling morons (who now I realize were themselves being pressured by forces above them and by the generally competitive nature of retail), and whose whole business model entails interchangeable workers is a strong motivator.

The author many years ago; I have almost no pictures from before I bought my first digital camera. I was an early adopted in that domain.

The author many years ago; I have almost no pictures from before I bought my first digital camera, which seems true of many people in my generation. Objects are so heavy and bits so light. I was an early adopter in that domain.

So were my coworkers, most of whom did not seem like me. One guy was, I think, in his 20s, and dating a classmate who was none of the things one generally looks for in a girlfriend: smart, interesting, attractive. Nonetheless they were fond of PDA, and we ended up working at the same time in Old Navy. One day we were folding jeans or whatever, and he told me about his journeys to the spirit realm and how he could inflict punishment on his enemies, or bring success to his friends, based on his supernatural experiences and communing with demons. He said this with what appeared to be the utmost sincerity. I’m often ready to hash out reasonable intellectual disagreements, but his demeanor made me unwilling to voice doubt about him and the spirit world.

Maybe he was trying to mess with me, but if so he a) deserves an Academy Award for his performance, and b) never let me in the joke. Believing in the “spirit world” was congruent with his personality. He didn’t overtly threaten me but he scared me for the obvious reasons.

Anyway, after that I began paying much closer attention to school, and by now the problems I faced are seldom-discussed background noise. Time, imagination, creativity, and effort can even out initial advantages or disadvantages. By now most people probably assume that I’ve been a lifelong diligent student, which is funny not only for the reasons described here but because I’ve always been slightly estranged from school despite long immersion in it (which may be a subject for another post.)

Having experienced what I’ll call for shorthand “being a dumbass” for a period in my life does have one virtue: it gives me a degree of empathy for bad students. Many teachers and professors have been A students and perfect hoop jumpers for their entire lives. Lazy, apathetic, and uninterested students are totally foreign to their minds. That foreignness often—though not always—leads them to scorn or disdain bad students. Students—like pretty much everyone—sense scorn or disdain quite keenly; those kinds of feelings are hard to hide and probably make it harder to reach the students who most need to be reach. This in turn alienates marginal students who accurately think that their teachers don’t like and don’t get them.

My own experience with unmotivated apathy reminds me that who a student—or any person—is today may not be who they are tomorrow. Some students don’t like my subject—English—for reasons that have nothing to do with me. If they flail I shouldn’t take it personally, but I also shouldn’t disdain them. When I went through the dumbass phase some teacher disdain came through quite clearly, and I’ve never forgotten it. I also haven’t forgotten that my personality didn’t really cohere until I was around 24, and though I spent a lot of my life thinking that I was “behind” everyone else in every domain I now realize that I wasn’t necessarily and that many other people faced similar troubles, but most of us don’t share deep, existential troubles for fear of losing face or showing weakness.

I’m not the only person who now seems like a high achiever but got extra chances in many ways. Megan McArdle has had similar experiences with failure or near failure—she wrote about that some in The Upside of Down. A lot of poor kids without good familial or social support fall further and further behind. John Scalzi’s best post is “Being Poor,” and in it he says, “Being poor is having to live with choices you didn’t know you made when you were 14 years old.” I didn’t have to live with those choices. Many people do. That point gets lost in a lot of political and public policy debates.

Questions about my thinking and motivation still bother me. I’ve noticed that many people who are unmotivated in high school or college get motivated when they’re forced to move out of their parents’s houses, or their dorms, and sink or swim based on their own efforts. Realizing that you bear the brunt of every action is powerful. The dishes don’t get done unless you do them. Filth becomes a real problem when you bring someone home and that someone’s disgust is palpable—maybe palpable to the point that they leave.

In addition, when I was younger I spent a lot of time being unhappy without understanding that a lot of people are unhappy. In my early twenties I stumbled into evolutionary biology, and from that reading I realized or read that humans haven’t evolved to be happy. We’ve evolved to survive and reproduce—as Darwin noticed—and happiness or satisfaction are not the goals of that process. Being dissatisfied is actually normal, and dissatisfaction is an impetus to go kill a mastodon or find a sexy mate or build a new hut. In modern terms, it might mean “write a novel” or “get a job” or “take dancing lesson” or whatever. At least in the U.S. we’re steeped in the idea that we should enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That last one I’m not so sure about anymore; it might be more reasonable to seek more modest and attainable goals. Goals like: build stuff, have a good time, and not hurt other people in the process. Those goals are still somewhat abstract goals but they are achievable than happiness, which is really abstract and tends to disappear the moment you look at it, like Rorschach in Peter Watts’s novel Blindsight.

I also used to think that the end goal of the mind and social life and school was getting the right answers (I was very naive). Now I know that the right answers are in many domains secondary or tertiary to other goals, like signaling, status, survival, reproduction, feelings, and so on.

Knowing about the potential links between creativity and depression is also helpful; I don’t want to make too much of those, and I don’t think the research is definitive, and knowing that creative people may be predisposed towards depression doesn’t mean that depressed people are necessarily predisposed towards creativity.

I wish someone had explained all this stuff to me, but maybe it wouldn’t have mattered and I wouldn’t have listened. People stuck in their own heads often have to give themselves permission to get themselves out.

* Incidentally, I do vividly remember a teacher named Rob Prufer, who was the sort of guy who inspires the hero teachers commonly depicted in movies and books. When I was a senior I was a better writer than most high school students, as a result of incessant reading, working for my parents, and writing for the school paper. He gave an assignment that required some personal component or reflection—the details have faded with time—and I turned in something that was apparently well-written, detailed, analytical, and totally wrong given the requirements. So he gave me an “F,” and the feeling of that F has stayed with me.

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  1. Pingback: Zero to One — Peter Thiel and Blake Masters | The Story's Story

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