10 Things I Learned in High School that I Still Remember 10 Years Later

Today, I am flying back home to St. Louis, MO to celebrate my high school 10-year class reunion, and I for one couldn’t be more excited. The 10-year reunion represents a time when, theoretically, people have started to find their place in the world. They’ve completed their graduate degrees, have gotten into the groove of their careers, and maybe even accomplished another thing or two like getting married or having a kid. Yeah, a few of them may still be doing exactly what they were doing 10 years ago, but that’s probably the exception, not the rule.

Still no regrets on my senior quote...just my picture

Still no regrets on my senior quote...just my picture

While high school brings back nothing but fond memories of Friday night football games, backyard summer parties, and dances with the various all-girls schools across town (yes, I went to an all-guys high school…and no, it wasn’t weird…that’s just what you do in good ol’ STL), it was also one of the biggest developmental periods of my life. Sure, it’s easy for your teenage years to get overshadowed by the freedom and growth that going away to college provided, or what you learned about your path in life during your first years in the “real world” as a 20-something. But I would argue that my time in high school (specifically DeSmet Jesuit…Go Spartans!) laid some critical foundations that shaped my worldview and impacted the choices I’ve made in my life and career.

With the 10-year reunion weekend quickly closing in, I recently asked myself “What did I learn in high school – not in college, not in my 20’s – that I still remember to today?” This list may not be exactly what you’re expecting, but here are 10 lasting lessons from high school that have stuck with me for the past 10 years:

1.) You Can Push Yourself Much Further Than You Think

Varsity Cross Country, Fall 2003

Varsity Cross Country, Fall 2003

After running track & field in grade school for all of 1 season (while hating every second of it), it was a shock to both myself and my parents that I decided to dive head first into cross country. As a naïve 14-year old, I just assumed cross country meant running for a long distance as fast as you could (whatever that meant) until you were done with said distance. While that’s pretty much exactly what cross country is, what I didn’t realize at the time was that you kicked your ass for 5 kilometers until you had absolutely nothing left when you crossed that finish line.

While I was never the fastest of the pack, I gained a new perspective on how far I could push myself – physically and mentally – and have pushed myself to the limits ever since. Without that drive, many back-to-back all nighters to get my engineering degree would have seemed impossible, and I would not have the stick-to-itiveness to convert business at even the most competitively-held customer in my professional life today.

2.) Be Concise

A 1-page masterpiece...minus 2 out of 20 points :-/

A 1-page masterpiece...minus 2 out of 20 points :-/

Any high school student would be thrilled to hear their teacher say “Your essay on The Great Gatsby can be no longer than ONE page”…until you actually have to write it. Dr. Chura’s junior year English class whipped my writing skills into shape more than any other class I’ve ever taken. While anyone can b.s. their way through 5 pages of an English paper, it takes real discipline to make your case in 1 page, where every last word counts. I haven’t forgotten the value of brevity in most of my communications. Unfortunately, my blog posts just aren’t always the best demonstration of that…

3.) Pick Friends That Align with Your Values

One of the weird little things that I’m stoked about this weekend is getting to walk through the school cafeteria. No, it has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I hear it got a new paint job. I’m looking forward to trying to pinpoint the tables where the football players sat, the gamers, the runners, the kids that listened to the punk rock (I spent most of my time jumping between those last two). It wouldn’t have been high school without the cliques.

Labels aside, I was a bit spoiled getting to go to a Jesuit school, where on the whole I feel I was surrounded by guys of great character. With the motto “Men for Others,” DeSmet Jesuit High School was a place where leadership, openness to growth, and a commitment to service were at the forefront of the school’s mission statement. It was hard not to surround yourself with good people. Nevertheless, high school was one of the first opportunities where I got to pick my friends, and maintain relationships with those that aligned with a similar set of values. It wouldn’t be until about 5 years after graduation that I first came across this Jim Rohn quote:

“You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.”

When I did, I knew that I was fortunate to have started that selection process well before college.

4.) Reinventing Yourself is Totally Doable

The beginning of many failed attempts at being punk rock...

The beginning of many failed attempts at being punk rock...

While I would hardly call ditching Abercrombie & Fitch for Dickies shorts and a chain wallet just because my friends and I started really getting into Blink-182 a meaningful reinvention, at the time it seemed like a big deal. Yeah, it represented a slight retooling of my image just about halfway through high school, and it received its share of harmless ridicule. Did that worry me at first? Hell yeah! I was a teenager, and at that time there was nothing worst than doing something that might be deemed “uncool.” But in the end, I didn’t let the perceived consequences hold me back from making the move.

Fast-forward 10+ years to the present, where I witness my friends questioning their careers, relationships, and lifestyles on a regular basis: relocation, changing your job, taking a pay cut to do something you love…these are all real scenarios that do have an element of risk. While the consequences of these decisions now bare more weight than simply becoming “uncool,” I still look at it the same way: “What’s the worst that could happen?” The worst-case scenario is probably not as bad as you think. Just do it.

5.) Experiences Trump the Classroom

If you asked me to tell you exactly what I learned in 90% of the classes I took in high school, I probably couldn’t tell you. But ask me what I learned outside of the classroom, and you get a blog post like this one!

In four short years, I had my first real experiences with politics, relationships, poverty, death, and leaving. Looking at these topics, some of them might have been touched on in the classroom, but that’s not where I was doing the majority of my learning. The real classrooms usually looked a bit more like this:

The Head Start 3 miles up from my home in South City, where I mentored a class of preschoolers on Monday afternoons throughout my junior year.

Or the bleachers at the football stadium, where [through plenty of unsuccessful iterations] I learned that it was in fact possible to talk intelligently to girls.

Or the dilapidated house in North St. Louis, where I spent my Saturday mornings as a senior rehabbing what would become a home for a disadvantaged family.

Or the front porch of my house, where my friends and I had to try and comprehend that one of our friends was gone forever.

In just 4 years the world looked a lot more complicated than it had before. Not every lesson was expected, but I knew how I had picked up the majority of my learnings. 10 years later, I’m still one to take a ‘learning by doing’ approach any day of the week.

...that one time my friends and I dressed up like superheroes and walked through the hip part of town...a slightly different "experience."

...that one time my friends and I dressed up like superheroes and walked through the hip part of town...a slightly different "experience."

6.) Take Time to Reflect

I don’t know about you, but high school was just about the first time in my life that I felt busy. Not like “grade school busy” – where soccer practice cutting my after school snack short by 15 minutes meant that I had a full schedule – but more of the “How am I going to finish this paper on Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy and make my two-a-days while still finding time to prep for the ACT and apply for college?!” type of busy.

OK, in retrospect, it was manageable, but with more things going on than ever, time was suddenly at a premium. For the first time, I found value in flipping the “off” switch and taking a breather. Whether you’re Catholic or not, the Jesuits have plenty of tools for taking that step back for daily reflection, most simply found in the Examen. I still put the base elements of this into practice on a regular basis – gratitude, meditation, and consciously focusing on the day ahead – that allow me to be effective in my work, relationships, and life.

7.) Never Sacrifice Form for Pounds

No, seriously…I mean this one quite literally. I can still hear my gym teacher Mr. Cerneka saying this over and over, and it still echoes every time I’m at the gym. While my workouts have changed over the years, I can’t get this out of my head any time I’m on the squat rack.

Still thinking there’s more to this? Like, some parallel between taking on any task with skillful execution instead of bruit force? Yeah, there’s that too, but I was really more focused on the weightlifting…

8.) A Bent Book Cover is Not The End of the World

This could probably be more generically stated as “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff,” but if I put it that way my high school friends that are reading this would be deprived of a tremendous inside joke. My mild OCD has gotten a bit better since then…though I’m still mourning the death of my manhandled paperbacks from American Lit.

As a teenager I got my first introduction to life outside of the bubble that I grew up in. As I was exposed to the realities of the world, I saw that life could be challenging – for those I didn’t know, and even for those around me. I realized that my family and friends had it pretty good, and worrying about “first world problems” was a petty waste of time.

9.) Distance is not an Obstacle for Friendship

I'll still travel 1000s of miles for good friends, a good party, and a good show...preferably all-of-the-above.

I'll still travel 1000s of miles for good friends, a good party, and a good show...preferably all-of-the-above.

Before high school, I barely knew that life existed outside of my neighborhood in South City. The concept of someone living more that 10 blocks away (i.e. walking distance) was incomprehensible. If you lived on the other side of Kingshighway, you might as well have been living in another country. Suburbs like Melville, Florissant, and St. Charles were uncharted territories where “there be dragons”…until they became the homes to some of my best friends.

With the onset of high school, suddenly my relationship map had expanded. While I’d be lying if I said that I started to develop a global perspective (that really didn’t happen until after college), it showed me a thing or two about the effort that goes into a friendship. I was surprised at first when parents would drive an hour across down just to pick their kid up from a friend’s house. But my friend’s dad said it best: “That’s just part of the deal,” and it was clear that distance didn’t have to be an obstacle for a friendship. With friends that now live continents away, I’m glad I picked this lesson up when I did.

10.) Be in the Now

How many times did you ask yourself in high school “I just can’t wait to get out of the house!”? All of us are probably guilty of that at one time or another, but hopefully the anxiousness of heading off to college and making it to the real world didn’t cause you to miss the awesomeness of high school until it passed you by.

High School, much like any other phase in life, had its ups and downs, but the ups usually came out ahead. While I’d say life’s subsequent stages are undoubtedly more challenging, it was good being able to enjoy being in the now and not sitting around thinking that the next thing would be better. As much as I’m all about long-term goals and knowing where I’d like to be in 5 years, I need to take a tip from my 18-year-old self, chill out, and just go hang out at Steak N Shake with some friends for awhile, with little worry about what tomorrow will bring.

It would be cliché to end this with a quote from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but hey, we’re talking high school here, so I’ll do it anyway:

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around every once in awhile, you could miss it.”

After all, it has been 10 years, and I don’t see things slowing down any time soon. Here’s to making the next 10 count as well.

More or less the same DeSmet crew, 4 years years after graduation. Here's a toast to friendship!

More or less the same DeSmet crew, 4 years years after graduation. Here's a toast to friendship!

Got any of your own takeaways from high school, or a great memory? Would love to hear them in the comments below!