All The Successful People You Knew in High School

April 10, 2016


Last year I had to experience what could be considered a worst nightmare: my five-year high school reunion. It was at some posh-ish pub, on a small side street, in a hip, up and coming neighbourhood. In the taxi on the way there the time between my graduation and the present flashed before my eyes. Five years, two hair colours, an Honours thesis and lots of boxed wine. That’s about it. 




Reunions are unique because they take every time you’ve experienced an awkward ‘catching-up conversation’ and condense them into a two-hour period. It sucks because everyone seems to be doing more stuff than you or, god forbid, the same stuff you’re doing only better.



I wonder how familiar this sounds: “Oh! [Name] just graduated from [Prestigious School]! Yeah, they’re going to volunteer in [Developing Country that Probably Loathes Voluntourists] for a year before they accept the position at [High Paying Job] where they’ve been given an unconditional offer. God, and look at their [Partner]. What a looker. The [Lovable Pet] they have together is adorable, too. What? How do I know all this? Well, their aunt is in my spin class and added me on Facebook, so I see all this on my newsfeed.”


The feeling that you’re lagging behind in a race you didn’t even know was happening can be confronting. You’re underprepared and overwhelmed. When did it become time to Do Stuff? I mean, you swear you used to Do Stuff. Good Stuff. You were a Bright Kid. You had potential! And then you graduated, kicked your feet up, and said, “Well that’s all the stuff done. Time to catch up on the TV I missed,” and then five years have passed and it feels like that’s all your life has amounted to.


It also doesn’t help that the world is intent on shoving the successful young people into your face. Malala Yousafzai earned the Nobel Peace Prize. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olson are 29, and they had eighty moves under their belt by the time they were your age. Lorde is eighteen. Emma Watson is a UN Goodwill Ambassador. David Karp created Tumblr when he was 20. Evan Spiegal founded Snapchat, and he’s 24. What have you done lately? Well, you finally figured out how to turn off Facebook’s push notifications, so that’s something. I guess.


There were fewer than fifty people in my graduating class, so we all knew each other's business. Intimately. You can try as hard as you can, but there’s no escaping the constant updates. This person’s on TV, that person’s engaged, this other person just saved a puppy from a well. What had I done? Zip. Nada. (Again, apart from the push notification thing. That’s a big win.)


 After high-school it’s almost as if you go through puberty again. Adulthood hits you hard, and five years later you have to have a mortgage, a baby, and funeral insurance. Seventeen year-old me had been a mess. Twenty-two  year-old me was… still a mess, only with clearer skin and better fashion sense.


There are different kinds of success, though, and as I looked around the room I saw pretty much all of them. For instance, I made small talk with a girl who had been popular, and she was working as a waitress, still emandering her way through finding something to major in at university. If we’re going to be technical about it, I was kind of winning. Only, it didn’t feel like it at the time, because all I saw was her long, shiny hair, the fact that she had a boyfriend. She seemed relaxed, while I clutched my cider in a sweaty palm. Maybe she was actually a few paces ahead of me?




The imaginary race continued to run through my brain. I talked to the guy who always wanted to be a pilot, and actually became a pilot; the girl who was top of our class and now the shining star at med school; a guy who managed several bands on Warped Tour; a girl who was preparing to move to New York City.


The truth is that none of us were winning. Much like the spoon in The Matrix, we need to realize the truth. (“What truth?” Keanu Reeves asks.) The truth that there is no race.


In trying to catch up with forty-eight people in two hours, I cut my speech short. I gave a highlights reel of what, in my view, was otherwise the world’s most boring, saddest and poorly directed film. The film of my life. Starring, I don’t know, Barbara Streisand circa Funny Girl.



The honest truth? Everyone does this. You have a front-row seat to your own life, 24/7. Meanwhile, other people only share their highlights. When you hear that So-and-So just got some amazing job, or went on a dream holiday, or met the person of their dreams, all you can see is the absence of that kind of good fortune in your own life.


You don’t see the long hours spent studying, the constant ass kissing, or sleepless nights that got them that job. You don’t notice all the things that they’ve sacrificed, or scrimped on over the last two years to afford that holiday. You haven’t met all the awful people they had to go through to meet the ‘one’. All you see is that they have it, and you don’t. That can be super rough.


#Lifegoals are hard because they can be outlandish and fantastical, or mundane and pathetic. A house made entirely out of windows in a lush, tropical rainforest and a marble bathtub filled with $50 bills? Life goals. Meaningful friendships? Freshly squeezed orange juice? A solid eight hours of sleep a night? Also life goals.


Sometimes it feels like we never have enough. There is always someone out there who has stuff we don’t have or is doing stuff we haven’t done. We have the same number of hours in our day as Beyoncé, but what are we doing with them? Why aren’t we doing enough?

Take a deep breath. Here’s a radical thought: you’re doing okay.


We need to stop being so hung up on being the best. Being the greatest, the richest, smartest, most eloquent, elegant, funny person we’ve ever known.  There’s no way you’re ever going to be that. Stop looking in other people for the things you think are missing from yourself. Just stop it.


The world doesn’t need or appreciate these successful people you knew in high school more than it needs and appreciates you. The Dalai Lama said something like that. “The planet does not need more successful people. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds,” and he’s been known to be a pretty wise dude.


As I walked home, leaving the bar filled with twenty-somethings I’d known in high school behind me, I breathed a sigh of relief. Not because I hated them, or being there, but because I understood that the past is gone. Nobody in that bar owed me anything, and they didn’t want anything from me either.


You should be Doing Stuff that you’re proud of, rather than worrying that it will sound impressive to a girl that used to bully you a little in high school. She’s practically a stranger now, anyway. You don’t need to validate your experience or accomplishments by trying to impress what’s-her-face. Being the successful person someone else knew in high school shouldn’t be the end goal.


At the end of the day, the real race we’re all running is one that has the same ending for everyone: worm food. The universe is too big and your life is too short to be worrying about that kind of junk. You are enough, so feel free to kick your feet up and enjoy it.


Images: Alex Jack


Barbara Taylor is a human being, probably. She likes reading biographies, eating anything salted-caramel flavoured, and going on long romantic walks with her dog. Currently occupying the black, starless void between undergrad and postgrad. She writes, sometimes.

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