Life After High School An Informal Research Project

This is a continuation of my blog to book project, Life After High School: Secrets to A Successful Life By Those Who Have Had Twenty Years To Think About It or What They Didn’t Teach Us Gen Xers In High School. In the last post, I covered part one of the preface/chapter 1, which you can read here first.

Admittedly, this is a long post for a blog, but breaking it up just didn’t feel right, so here it is in its entirety.

AHS Class of 1996 (left)AHS Class of 1996 (right)

An Informal Research Project

After the first realization that we were approaching our twenty-year, I began to research the idea of the social and psychological ramifications of high school life. In a June 20, 2011, Time Magazine article, “Life After High School,” By Annie Murphy Paul, she concludes that “We’re obsessed with those four years. But new research shows we’re not defined by them.”

The article points to several scientific studies tracking people post-high school and determines that high school life events did have an impact on the subjects into their adult lives.

…And yes, there’s some truth to the yearbook predictions, social scientists find. Broadly speaking, the brainy grinds and the glad-handing class officers achieve success as adults. The jocks are fitter and in better health. The outcasts and dropouts are more likely to be depressed and unemployed. The kids who drank and smoked pot under the bleachers are mostly still drinking and doping, sometimes to excess.

I often feel like the latter group may be the only ones that achieved “happiness,” even if it had to be synthetically created.

However, people can change dramatically regardless of their starting point.

In a study conducted [in 2010], Stephen D.H. Hsu and James Schombert, physics professors at the University of Oregon, analyzed undergraduates’ high school test scores and college grades. “Low SAT scores do not preclude high performance in most majors,” they reported. High-achieving students often get that way through dogged effort, they pointed out, rather than innate brilliance. “Our results suggest that almost any student admitted to university can achieve academic success—if they work hard enough,” the authors concluded.

Paul also discusses the darker side of popularity, and how it can be both positively and negatively driven, à la Mean Girls, and the effects can create all kinds of sociological bumpy roads later in life.

Popularity is not all it’s cracked up to be,” says Kathleen Boykin McElhaney, a psychologist at the University of Virginia. Her study of 164 adolescents, published in the journal Child Development in 2008, found that teenagers who don’t belong to their schools’ in groups can still function well socially—if they find a comfortable niche among their classmates. As long as they feel happy with themselves and their friends, it doesn’t matter how popular they are. “Our work shows that popularity isn’t all that important,” says McElhaney. “The key is finding a group of people with whom you can feel at ease being yourself.”

As interesting as the article was, I couldn’t help but wonder if there is more to it.

I decided to do an informal study of the Anacortes, Washington High School class of 1996, not at all scientific, but anecdotal and subjective, in the hopes of seeing trends, patterns, or commonalities among the participants. Perhaps this was only for a kind of poetic closure personally, or perhaps it was out of a sense of duty as the high school newspaper editor. (Incidentally, I thought I was a big shot when we won a national award for revolutionizing our school newspaper in 1996. I eventually submitted my work and the award  to the University of Washington in the hopes of getting a small scholarship and a position at The Daily. They rejected me swiftly and outrightly, as I was far too small town and far too white… Thank God I never got work there. I would have definitely torn up the place and caused pandemonium.)

What better way to validate all my assumptions and theories than by asking my generation their thoughts? I mean, as I found out taking psychology at UW, there is only one thing we know for certain from the entire field. After reading the massive textbook cover to cover, the final chapter’s conclusion was something like: “Well, we do know that talking to someone about your problems may indeed be helpful, but we have no evidence that the practice of psychology or psychiatry really does anything to solve any problems or cure any mental ailments whatsoever.” Since I am so opinionated and such an old curmudgeon about it, it is even more ironic that I married a psychology major.

What I am most fascinated with is the stories. I wanted the perspectives and I crave the opinions of my classmates. I believe this stems from the desire to understand and feel a sense of belonging, and the only way I can do that is by seeing if the other apples that fell from the tree landed in the same rough and tumble rocky soil that I did and had to fight to take seed in the same way that I did, or if they rolled on to greener pastures.

I wanted desperately to know what they learned, if anything, over the twenty years since we left the nest. Now, in our culture, it seems to me that there is a little more buzz and infatuation with the ten-year reunion. Perhaps that is because people in their late twenties tend to still remember high school and perhaps hang out with some of their buddies from the previous decade, or maybe it is because they are still in their youthful driving and competitive years, vying for positions of importance and wanting to crosscheck their decisions and accomplishments with their peers. Also, after twenty years, some people are sadly no longer with us, missing, moved away, too busy with kids, or just decided not to give a darn.

I had a particularly difficult time getting people to respond unless I made it very easy. You will see the same questions asked of all my interviewees throughout. I am grateful for each one that took the time to reflect. For some, it was very therapeutic and even cathartic. For some, the mere thought of it was enough to get very testy at me for even asking. I even had a bit of backlash from my messaging and emails in the form of passive-aggressive cold shoulders.

Yet I feel that twenty years is the perfect time to have a reunion. After a ten-year, people are still trying to figure out who they are. They are still trying to live up to the vision they had in their youth, and still trying to make sense of the changing tides and rocky cliffs they are facing from a childish perspective. They probably haven’t achieved all their dreams and goals, but many are still clinging to the same objectives they had when they were eighteen.

After twenty years, however, people tend to grow up. (OK, so maybe some haven’t grown up, but everyone is at least older, and even those who have remained in a high-school frame of mind are now probably viewed with a bit more quaint and nostalgic comedy.)

One morning, while finishing up a session with a personal training client, I asked him his thoughts on his reunion, which had also happened recently. His response was to relate a story to me about when he was talking to one of his classmates at the reunion whom he had not seen in twenty years and her husband just wouldn’t have it! The husband jumped in the way as if my client had some sneaky alternative and was somehow flirting or suggesting unbecoming conduct (which of course he was not), thereby proving that most people never grow up. My client also mentioned that he thought it was ironic that his wife got sweet revenge, since she was known as someone unpopular with braces, and who became very beautiful as an adult, much to the astonished faces of the reunion attendees. We both had a hearty laugh about that.

What more, people approaching forty may have already passed through an early mid-life crisis of sorts. After reading a book Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife, written by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, I learned that most people don’t go through a full-on crisis, but enter a general malaise of sorts in their mid-life years. These years tend to be around forty-five to sixty-five, but there is some wiggle room there, and it is not limited to Americans. It is found to span across every culture and is indicated by a general drop in happiness due to many complex life factors, some of which are out of our control.

The good news is that happiness tends to rise again afterward, and many people are able to avoid the low point entirely by exercising their brains and finding or strengthening their purpose and reason for being and living. This is much more than being goal-oriented by the way, which is what many of us have been heavily indoctrinated with. After all, as pointed out earlier my new goal of being a professional basketball player is much more difficult now that I am 39, a little under 5’10”, and haven’t been shooting free throws every day for the last thirty or so years. We all have goals from our youth that we either already accomplished, only to stop in dismay and ponder, “Is this all there is?” Perhaps we decided the goal was no longer what we wanted and therefore just abandoned it.

Yet, the mid-life doldrums,  or whatever you want to call it, can be simply one symptom or facet of a larger event, which I like to call: Figuring S*** Out (and those asterisks are short for “TUFF”). That means that twenty years of living post-high-school can lead to some amazing and life-altering conclusions of wisdom and epiphany from those that fight through life this far. Those epiphanies and nuggets of golden wisdom are what fascinate me!

After 20 years I realize that what you turned into as an adult was strongly influenced by your mindset you had developed at that pivotal high-school time in your life. Parental upbringing, socioeconomic factors, hereditary factors, beliefs, self-talk, and habitual conditioning have a profound effect over time. It seems to me that where people start can be very similar, but over time where they end is a product of the small degrees of difference in trajectory compounded as the years roll on. In my very humble opinion, the degrees are degrees of thought, since your thinking determines your choices, which determine your actions, which determines your habitual behaviors, which determine your outcomes, which determine your destiny.

The geographical area you live can have a strong positive or negative influence, as environment is a factor in the nature and nurture balance. Usually, it seems that everyone is drawn to their roots, like salmon spawning or whale migration. In the case of the amazingly beautiful small town of Anacortes, many strong emotions can tug at heart strings. The past leaves an indelible imprint on the psyche. As you’ll read in these stories, you may wonder as I do, if the geography and socioeconomic factors play a strong role in this particular cast of characters’ opportunities and choices, or if the themes underlying their stories are universal and can be found anywhere. I think it is a bit of both, but you can judge for yourself.

Another theme I found recurring in my research seemed to point to the old adage: The more things change the more things stay the same. People do change, but many basic personality traits and attitudinal qualities never do. Beliefs and habitual patterns seem to drive many of these outcomes. Sometimes I even feel that genetics or “nature” plays the largest role, and at other times that upbringing and other “nurture” factors are the chief influencers.

Regardless of your philosophical bent, it seems universal that most agree we as a people tend to relate life experiences, especially career decisions, back to our 18-year-old frame of reference to cross-examine our experiences with our expectations and reality. We reflect now on what was taught to us as conventional wisdom then (regardless if we held it on a pedestal or rejected it in our youth), and use that as a context to judge our present circumstances. In the first chapter, I relate a story about my friend Suzanne, who questions our former idealism and its long term effects.

Yet, my aim is not to tell you what to think. My hope is that you’ll dive into the lives of these people through their stories and perhaps get a little taste of what it would be like to be in their shoes so that you can draw your own conclusions. The “how to think” part lies in the process of it. I encourage you to look for the commonalities as well as the differences between their accounts of that time, the underlying themes, and join in the adventure of unearthing the golden nuggets of wisdom contained therein.

Happy mining and I hope you strike it rich!

Jesse Stoddard


In the next post, I am going to share an interview with one of my classmates!

Are you from Generation X? I want to hear what you think! Please comment below and participate in the conversation about What They Didn’t Teach Us Gen Xers In High School. What do you wish someone told you when you were eighteen?

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