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5 Signs Your High School Hang-Ups Are Holding Back Your Career

The "Most Likely to Succeed" award in high school usually goes to popular kids. Unfortunately, the attributes that lead to popularity in high school often bear no relationship to success in later life.

For example, a high school classmate of mine was the opposite of popular. (I wasn't popular either, so I'm in no way putting him down.) If there had been a "Least Likely to Succeed" award -- I'm really glad there wasn't -- he might have been nominated. Today he runs the $300 million company he founded.

High school is an incredibly formative period. We carry many of the lessons we learn -- not the educational ones, the social ones -- the rest of our lives. In some ways that's great, but some of what you learned in high school may hold you back.

Here are five warning signs that your business/professional life is like high school with money:

  1. You look to the wrong people for advice. Kids ask their friends for dating advice all the time. Think about it: Who is less qualified to talk intelligently about relationships than a teenager? The same applied to teachers. I had a few great teachers but they were completely unqualified to give me career advice -- unless I planned to be a teacher. Don't ask friends or family for advice about starting a business or changing careers. If you want to change careers talk to people working in that field. If you want to start a business, talk to successful entrepreneurs or better yet to successful entrepreneurs who failed once or twice along the way. Then keep in mind no one you ask for advice can assess what truly matters: your level of determination, drive, and persistence.
  2. You do what you think you should do instead of what you want to do. Popularity in high school is based on conformity; other kids' opinions dictate what is "right." Conventional wisdom is an extension of high school conformity. If you want to live a life similar to those around you, do what they say and do. If you want a different life you must do what you think is right, regardless of what others say. In high school, being different usually leads to being unpopular. In later life, being different often leads to success, either in business terms or in terms of self-satisfaction -- and is there any other kind of satisfaction that really matters?
  3. You join clubs because you think you should. Most of us joined clubs in high school because we thought that would improve our chances of getting into a better college. As adults many people join clubs because they think it will improve their business or professional prospects. Seriously: When was the last time your Chamber of Commerce membership or membership in a professional association actually paid off? Take a look at your clubs and associations. Do you receive a tangible benefit for the time and money you spend? Do customers or employers really care about the acronyms on your website or resume? Only be a member when membership pays off in quantifiable ways.
  4. You focus on learning things you will never use. I took calculus in high school. I also took five years of Spanish. Today I can no more find a derivative than I can carry on a conversation past, "Hola. Qué pasa?" In business and professional terms, focus on learning what you can directly apply to your business or career. (Here's one way to define "directly applies": Anything that helps you make money.) Or identify your weaknesses and work to overcome them.
  5. You care what random people think about you. I remember kids I had never even spoken to glancing at, say, my shoes. I would immediately think, "Oh, no... what's wrong? Not the right brand? Not cool anymore?" (The answer was yes on both counts since my mom refused to pay brand name prices.) Many people still worry about what random people might think, choosing a business location based on perceived status rather than what makes the best business sense, or choosing not to work in a particular field because they fear others will not view them as "successful." The only opinions that matter are those of family, friends, customers, and coworkers. Who cares what other people think? Easier said than done, I know, but none of us should care about the opinions of people who don't matter. It's your life -- live it your way.
Related: Photo courtesy flickr user Elessar, CC 2.0