You don’t have to know what you want to do with your life when you’re in high school. It may feel like you need the answers because people are always asking you this, but it’s really just a conversation starter.
The most important thing is to figure out what it is that you like. It sounds weird to say that finding out what you like is something that takes effort, but it does. Partly because it’s hard to get an accurate picture of what most jobs are like.
“Don’t give up on your dreams” is misleading, because it implies it implies that you have some strict plan.
What they really mean is “don’t get demoralized; don’t think you can’t do what other people can”. People who do great things aren’t superhuman. I suspect if you had the sixteen year old Shakespeare or Einstein in school with you, they'd seem impressive, but not totally unlike your other friends.
It is wise to upwind. Do things now that give you good options later on. For example, if you’re choosing between math and economics, math is probably a better choice because it gives you more options than economics.
But it’s tough to know what the upwind options are. A good heuristic to follow is to work on hard problems. Writing novels is hard. Reading novels isn’t. Hard means that there’s a chance at failure.
Treat high school like a day job. That doesn’t mean don’t try, it means don’t be defined by it. Get your schoolwork out of the way, and then work on hard problems.
It’s not that you shouldn’t spend any time hanging out. You should, but treat it like chocolate cake. It’s something that tastes good when you eat it occasionally, but starts getting queasy after the third meal of it.
You may ask, “what about extracurricular activities?”. You know that they’re mostly bogus. They aren’t that big a deal to colleges. You’d be better off working on hard problems.
It's dangerous to design your life around getting into college, because the people you have to impress to get into college are not a very discerning audience.
But resist the urge to rebel! It’s like if you got fouled playing basketball and the ref missed the call. If you rebel and stop trying, you’re only hurting yourself. Again, just treat it as a day job. Just get it over with so you could focus on the things that really matter. And as far as day jobs go, it’s pretty sweet. You’re done at 3 o’clock, and you can even work on your own stuff while you’re there.
For kids, curiosity is broad and shallow; they ask why at random about everything. For ambitious adults, curiosity becomes narrow and deep. And this turns work into fun.
Don’t let school tell you that you need a lot of discipline. A lot of people who do great work have little discipline and can’t motivate themselves to do things that they’re not interested in.
It’s not that you can get away with zero self-discipline. You probably need about the amount you need to go running. I'm often reluctant to go running, but once I do, I enjoy it. And if I don't run for several days, I feel ill. It's the same with people who do great things. They know they'll feel bad if they don't work, and they have enough discipline to get themselves to their desks to start working. But once they get started, interest takes over, and discipline is no longer necessary.
It can take years to zero in on a productive question, because it can take years to figure out what a subject is really about.
If it takes years to articulate great questions, what do you do now, at sixteen? Work toward finding one. Keep working on things that interest you and in the process keep a lookout for that big question.
Don't disregard unseemly motivations. One of the most powerful is the desire to be better than other people at something. Another powerful motivator is the desire to do, or know, things you're not supposed to.
A key ingredient in many projects, almost a project on its own, is to find good books. Most books are bad. Nearly all textbooks are bad. So don't assume a subject is to be learned from whatever book on it happens to be closest. You have to search actively for the tiny number of good books.
The only real difference between adults and high school kids is that adults realize they need to get things done, and high school kids don't. That realization hits most people around 23. But I'm letting you in on the secret early. So get to work. Maybe you can be the first generation whose greatest regret from high school isn't how much time you wasted.