Hi, kids! I’m John. I used to be a massive screw-up who drank away over 20 years of his life while sleeping on other people’s couches and eating their food, while they worked to pay the bills and make sure I didn’t die of starvation, alcohol poisoning, or an overdose of … well, name a drug. Today, I’m clean, successful, and I help run a section of Cracked that’s responsible for about a fourth of what you read here. Life has been good, but it didn’t get that way until I learned some pretty important lessons that I should have learned when I was still in high school.
Fortunately, you don’t have to waste a couple of decades to figure this stuff out for yourself. You don’t have to worry about fixing a credit rating that’s written in tears in your 40s or learning how to climb a corporate ladder when your kids are closing in on their own graduations. Knowing how to do that stuff starts right now. You just have to realize a few important things as you wrap up your final years of high school. For instance …
#5. Know Your Limitations
One of the most common messages adults love to give kids is, “You can be anything you want to be. You just have to want it badly enough.” For the most part, that’s true. If you genuinely have a passion for something, go after it. Practice your youthful, energetic face clean off until you master your craft, and you’ll eventually find an awesome job doing that thing. As long as that job doesn’t require a face, because yours is now gone.
That passion is key, though. Passion is the motivator that makes you do something over and over, even when it gets boring. When I was in high school, I had a passion for art. I loved drawing with charcoal, and I spent pretty much all of my spare time drawing pictures of human faces. Here’s one I did of Michael Stipe of REM back when he had hair:
Back when he was both shiny and happy.
Eventually, I got good enough with charcoal to get much more precise than the above picture. I figured out ways to remove pencil marks. I learned techniques to make the facial features exact. When I finally gave up drawing, my portraits were near photographic. So if I had a passion for art, and I became that skilled with it, why didn’t I become a successful artist? I didn’t know my limitations.
At the time, I didn’t realize that people aren’t going to buy a picture of Michael Stipe. People wanted portraits of their family, their dog, their house — they wanted personalized art. And that meant working directly with the customer to produce something they’d pay for. In order to sell the type of work I enjoyed, I had to do it by their specifications. On top of that, I had to barter with them on the price. I had to create a business, because people weren’t going to find me unless I took out an ad in the paper, rented out buildings to show my work, invested money into equipment, and did drawings I’d never sell just so I could hang them on a wall as an example. I hated all of that. I wasn’t a salesman, and I didn’t want to be.
Had I recognized those limitations early enough, I could have taken some business classes or spoken to other successful artists to learn how they pulled it off. I could have looked those limitations right in their cold, dead eyes and given them the finger. Instead, I let those limitations destroy my passion, and after 20 years of nonstop work, I gave it all up and flushed that skill down the toilet. I haven’t picked up a charcoal pencil in over 15 years.
Know your own limitations. Do you want to become a famous UFC fighter, but you’re afraid of getting punched in the face? You’d probably better practice your dodging … or let someone punch you in the face until you get used to it. Want to be the world’s best mechanic, but your arms are too weak to turn a wrench? Start lifting weights or get one of those arm-wrestling ropes that Sylvester Stallone uses in Over The Top.
I’m not telling you to give up on your dreams if you have shortcomings. I’m telling you to punch those shortcomings in the crotch. Because if you recognize those limitations and don’t do anything about them, you might as well just give up and move on to something else. Every person who ends up on an audition episode of one of those reality talent shows has passion for what they’re doing. But because they don’t recognize and do something about their limitations, many of them take on the role of, “Look at these stupid assholes who think they’re awesome. Hahaha! Losers!” We’re not shooting for five minutes of fame. We’re shooting for a lifetime of happiness.
#4. Figure Out What You Want To Do With Your Life (In General)
I still think, after all these years, that when someone asks you what you want to do with your life, you should respond the way Twisted Sister did in the video “I Wanna Rock”:
But chances are, you’re not going to have a backup band ready to go at the time, and the person asking you isn’t going to be a cheesy over-actor. Still, you need to have at least a general idea of what area you want to anchor your career. I’m not talking about nailing down an exact job title. Dee Snider didn’t say he wanted to be a sound engineer at a major studio or that he wanted to be the frontman of a world-famous rock band. He simply wanted to rock. And then he did.
The next several years of your life will be modeled after this decision, so you’re going to have to give it some serious thought. Do you want to do something with math? You don’t want to sink the first three semesters of college into an English-centered degree and then have to back up and switch gears once you figure that out. Doing that can effectively extend your college graduation by a year or two. Don’t be that weirdo who ends up attending the same school for 10 years. That’s just sad.
Finally, I can land a job teaching dodgeball.
Getting that general idea nailed down will save you tons of headaches in your first year or two at college. Once you have some experience under your belt (ew, that sounds gross), you can then fine-tune your program and figure out a more specific career goal. Very few of the successful people I know ended up getting a job in the exact area they studied in college, but all of them are using the generalized skills in their careers.
Our editor-in-chief, who runs all of Cracked, studied philosophy. He’s not a professional philosopher, but those general philosophy skills directly translate to making our articles specific to our site’s voice. David Wong studied broadcast journalism, which taught him how to convey points quickly and efficiently. That freak is now a New York Times best-selling author, and he runs the entire feature section for us. I studied to be a math teacher, and now I … um … can write article points in groups of five.
You get the idea. Just take my word for it and figure out your niche now. It’ll save you from having to break out the shovel to dig yourself out of a mountain of horseshit later down the line.
#3. This Is The Best Job Training You’ll Ever Have … Embrace It
What a lot of high-schoolers don’t realize (and how could they; there’s no point of comparison yet) is that everything you’re doing right now is the rock bottom basics of how a job physically functions. You’re waking up at a stupid hour of the morning, operating on someone else’s schedule, doing monotonous tasks for eight hours a day until the weekend. This is one of the big reasons it’s hard to get a good job without a diploma.
It has very little to do with implied intelligence and everything to do with figuring out if you can hack it in an adult world. A high school diploma is basically your “This person isn’t a lazy sack of shit” certificate.
That diploma tells a potential employer that you have the basic ability to show up, stay until it’s time to clock out, and do good enough work to pass an authority figure’s scrutiny. It tells them that you have the stamina to put up with other people’s idiotic mood swings without nunchucking them in the butthole, as well as controlling your own without getting kicked out of school. Because understand this right now: Real people being in crappy moods will take up a staggering amount of your life after graduation. In some industries, like customer support, it will be the sole function of your job. Dealing with other people’s bullshit is a skill everyone needs but few people master. Having that skill makes you valuable.
I told you to stop making paper levitate in the office!
That diploma shows a potential boss that you were able to bite your lip and take it, even when the teacher was wrong, right up through graduation. It means you know how to function in a social environment … which is really important, because most jobs are exactly that. Not just because customers are involved but co-workers as well. Being able to address incompetency or another worker’s bad day without flipping out and spin-kicking them in the teeth is a basic skill all people need, but sometimes a miracle to pull off.
My senior year, I almost quit school. I made it as far as the front office, with all my books in hand. My locker was totally cleaned out, and I was done. I only had a few months to go before graduation, but I just couldn’t take the stress anymore. Lucky for me, the people in that office actually gave a crap about me, and they gave me a few days off to calm down and think about it. I finished the year and graduated, and I still shudder to think of the bullshit jobs I would have had to take if they had let me go. Watching factory workers make bottle caps on How It’s Made is fascinating to me, but not if I was the one doing it.
What I’m saying is: Stick it out. You’re going to get stressed, and you’re legally allowed to give it all up. Don’t. I’d really rather see you driving a Jaguar F-Type … not washing someone else’s. This last year or two of high school is excellent job training. Use it to your advantage.