Like many of the students who walk into my office, I spent my high school years
spread thinner than a pat of butter melting on a waffle. I did theater, cross-country
(running and skiing), track, student council, math team, etc. etc. etc. When my
Renaissance Man Approach to school was rewarded with admission to the Yale class of
2008, I felt that my tendency to overcommit myself had been justly rewarded. Sure, it
was a stressful and sleepless slog through four years of high school, but that was the
only way to get where I wanted to go, right?
I used to think so. I don’t anymore. One of the biggest influences behind this 180-
shift in my thinking is the work of Cal Newport, a computer science professor who writes
about the habits and hacks of people who manage to achieve a lot in life while still living
life. Cal has a book that I’d like to recommend to any high school student who feels that
the only way to succeed is to be either (a) a natural-born genius or (b) a stressed-out
zombie. In other words, a book I’d like to recommend to every high school student ever.
His book is:
The book’s pithy subtitle sums up the approach: Do Less, Live More, Get Accepted.
And if that sounds waaaaaay too good to be true, then this book might be for you.
Newport’s core philosophy is that the key to succeeding in high school is not to study
harder but study smarter. And what does that look like? To this question, he provides an
entire book full of practical answers, derived from actual case studies with students who
manage to organize their lives so they spend less time studying and participating in
extracurricular activities every week without sacrificing overall performance. Many of the
students he profiles actually manage to perform better than their peers and get into the
school of their dreams. “The big idea,” he writes, is to find a way to become less
overloaded and less stressed without becoming less impressive.”
How to Be a High School Superstar is passionately devoted to the idea that remarkable
achievements have much more to do with your study habits and schedules than your
innate talents. Unfortunately, the one class never offered in high school is: How to
Succeed in High School. The result is that most students – including my former self –
resort to a crude, throw-yourself- at-the- wall approach, driven by the perverse logic of
more exhaustion = better. Newport exposes the flaws in this thinking, showing that
studying itself is an art form, and one that can be practiced and improved upon. Along
the way, he offers blueprints to chart your own path to a less stressed, more successful
For those looking to dip their toes into Newport’s work, head on over to his blog by clicking the button below.