The Second Dirty Secret Of High School

Yesterday, I talked about “The First Dirty Secret Of High School”.

Today, I will expose The Second Dirty Secret Of High School. Here it is, whether you’re ready for it or not:

Success is elusive.

The kind of success that popular culture values; the kind that students dream of; the kind that teachers and parents directly or indirectly promote with our talk of college and career, college and career, college and career… That kind of success is elusive.

These charts make the point. (Click any chart for a larger version.)

Info - High School AthletesInfo - College AthletesInfo - Olympic Athletes

Info - MIllionairesInfo - Billionaires

Info - Publish a BookInfo - DoctorateStarting a Business

The charts show that the kind of success high school students fantasize about, the kind of success in the stories we use to inspire the students, is essentially unattainable. Not only that, but success is impossible to predict, and the arena of success is impossible to force.

Individual classrooms are an example of this. Not all students will “get” every subject, or even all the material in any subject. Some students love academics; some students have embraced (or never questioned) the game of hoop-jumping that schooling can be; some students are lucky to have a physiology that not only does not get in the way of sitting or learning, but that helps them succeed in school… but not every student.

Academic success is elusive—not as rare as the endeavors in the charts above, but still not achieved by all who are compelled to attempt it.

Even our top military schools, which have carefully-chosen students and extremely strict standards, fail to produce potential generals in any higher percentage than public school produce stand-out successes.

Everyone knows this. It is not news.

But no one talks about it. The elusiveness of success is so obvious that it is baffling that it is kept out of every conversation about education, even though both the students and the teachers are aware of it. And, if we all were honest, we know that we suppress and avoid it. But it is at the edges of the student’s thoughts about the future, and at the edges of the teacher’s advice and encouragement about the future. The inescapable reality of it makes our educating incomplete at best and dishonest at worst.

The education initiatives handed down from governments brazenly ignore the “secret”. And they probably have to. How do you quantify and measure future success? But that is one reason that the initiatives end up as impotent and as political posturing. Recent federal mandates require that each group of students perform better than the previous year’s group. This means, for example, that more of this year’s sophomores must meet standards than last year’s sophomores. Expecting this year’s sophomores to perform better next year than they did this year makes sense. But that is not what the law requires.

Back to the charts: not only does that level of “success” require more work than most people are willing and motivated to give, but a person’s physiology might betray them. Look at the chart of Olympic Athletes. For every one that makes it to the Olympics, there are 300 that get injured or sick or have a bad day at trials. 300 that we never hear about.

Furthermore, as we march forward with competition and training and analytics and drugs, the price of admission to success gets higher and higher.

I have touched on the difficulty of achieving “success” before:

So…what can we do with this secret? Do we continue to ignore its reality? Do we resign ourselves to it in defeat? Can we resolve it for ourselves and our students?

The good news is that there is a final answer to this universal secret. There is solution to the problem. We simply need a true definition and measure of success. And we have one:

“Success is a peace of mind, knowing you did your best to become the best you can be. Don’t try to become better than anyone else, but never cease becoming the best you can be.” – John Wooden

That’s it. That’s everything.

Will it be hard to accept this definition and to become the best version of yourself?

Uh, yeah…

“To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” – e.e. cummings

But it will be less difficult then pretending to be someone you are not. It will be less difficult than dealing with the frustration and restlessness that comes from pretending and trying to be what someone else thinks you should be.

A good number of people drink alcohol, take drugs, smoke cigarettes, are addicted to some addictive behavior, or take unsafe risks. It is reasonable to assume that not all of them do it because they like the taste of alcohol, or like what cigarettes and drugs do to their body, or like the consequences of poor decisions. Many of them do it because they need something that will silence the restless, nagging voice that says they are not being true to themselves–that at one time they wanted something else or something more out of life.

Sure success is elusive, and the fantasies we were conditioned to believe were unrealistic. But that is the nature of dreaming. And it can be healthy.

The answer and resolution to The Second Dirty Secret Of High School is to embrace John Wooden’s true definition of success. Write it out. Post it on your bathroom mirror. Talk about it with your fellow life-conspirators.

It is no longer a secret now.


  1. Very interesting Mr. Hugh I completely agree. Everyone teacher knows this I just wish they could rise above it and care to understand it. Everyone is good at something, unfortunately for some kids school is not the platform to make those skills flourish. in school your only doing what the curriculum is telling you to do.. that could be off topic but that’s what I took from it. thanks for a good Monday morning read!

  2. Excellent, well-written post that puts words to what many students are thinking and feeling (and questioning) about the writing process.

    “If you look at a piece of finished writing, all neat and orderly, and know nothing about how it actually came about, you might deduce that it was created using what Arlo Guthrie calls ‘the good old-fashioned boring method.’ But this isn’t how good, finished writing usually occurs…” Bolker (1998) goes on to report that Brett Candlish Millier looks at the seventeen drafts of Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘One Art” to discover how exquisite writing really gets done! The most shocking thing he found out from reading Bishop’s drafts was that her first draft looked pretty awful!! (Bolker, 1998, p. 33).

    Just write! Begin with a point, a question, a thought, a passion, and engage the reader to go on a journey that will move them as it moves you!

  3. Oy vey, don’t know how the above response jumped from the post about writing to the post about success, lol! Here’s the one about success: Gotta love Johnny Wooden.

    “Success is a peace of mind, knowing you did your best to become the best you can be. Don’t try to become better than anyone else, but never cease becoming the best you can be.” – John Wooden

    That’s it. That’s everything.

    On Meryl Davis’ website she writes: “Go boldly in the direction of your dreams.”

  4. I believe Johnny Wooden used to quote Thomas Alva Edison’s immortal words:

    “Success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.” And if anyone should know, Edison should!

    Thank you for a beautifully written post!

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