"If you were a 17-year-old out of high school, what would you do with your life?
I tested out of high school two years early, and lately I've just become so stuck and cynical of life. I don't know what I'm missing and why I'm stuck. I don't know where to move on to.
I've been going to talk therapy once a week (which barely helps)."
I'm not a licensed clinical psychologist or anything, but I do have a bachelor's and master's in psychology from Stanford. So here's my take on your situation, which is based on many assumptions that may or may not be true.
You are a high-achieving individual. You are talented and gifted, and you worked hard enough to test out of high school two years early. That's really great. Congratulations on your achievements.
BUT. There is a cost associated with your achievements.
You don't know what you're passionate about or what takes your breath away. You have spent very little time entertaining yourself. Your free time has almost always been structured. You have done what you thought you should do or were told you needed to do to succeed.
I did my master's research on exactly this. Here's what I learned:
Playfulness/leisure skills are not traits that you were born with. They are skills.
Adolescence is the time when most people develop these skills. But kids from high achieving backgrounds (like yours) miss out on almost all of their opportunities to develop these skills. In that way, you are stunted.
Technology doesn't help. When you work your butt off all day at school and extracurriculars, you're often too burned out to do something that takes your breath away during your free time. Instead, you passively entertain yourself with (/are entertained by) technology. It's easy. It's obvious and overt. You don't have to think. You just have to watch. Look. Click. Swipe.
Heck, according to The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine, Ph.D. (a book I highly recommend for parents), many kids in your situation are so depressed that they're carving words like "empty" into their arms.
For example, you're lonely, so you fly off the handle when you meet someone and text them like crazy and try to make too much happen too soon. They get intimidated and break things off with you... so then you're even more lonely, and the next time you meet someone, it's even worse.
Or maybe you feel stuck in life, so you frequently go online to search for opportunities. But there is so much out there that you quickly become overwhelmed by choice overload. Your stress level goes up, you feel like crap, your mind shuts down... so you end up watching Netflix and feeling even more stuck.
Or whatever. A good therapist will identify what feelings and behaviors are causing problems for you, and help you figure out strategies to fix it. If you're not having conversations like that in therapy, I'm guessing you should try a new therapist. Of course, you might just need a shoulder to cry on. But most people benefit more from real feedback and actionable advice.
So I'll try to give you some.
You may have stunted leisure skills and your daily activities may lack meaning. This makes you feel lost, uncertain and dispassionate.
I'm sure someone's already told you to take a gap year. And I think that could be the right thing for you. I don't think you're necessarily ready to do something self-directed, because
1. You're young, and
2. You probably don't have a lot of travel experience.
But there are tons of gap year programs available. And right now -- right now! -- is when you need to start applying to them.
There are hundreds of programs to choose from. Five of the best are:
1. Seamester - Study Abroad at Sea
2. Where There Be Dragons - Summer, Gap Year & Semester Study Abroad Programs for High School & College Students in Asia, Africa & Americas
3. Carpe Diem Gap Year Programs
4. Gap Year Programs with CIEE
5. SYA Vietnam Gap Year
So pick one (or all five) of these and start your applications. Today.
If you think cost will be an issue, you can definitely apply for a scholarship. All of these programs have some sort of financial aid program. Or, check out An Affordable Gap Year. It has lots of great information about jobs, volunteer positions and internships.
So there's your long-term plan. A voyage of discovery that starts in a couple of months. But what about right now?
Work on developing your leisure skills. I don't know if you use any drugs or alcohol. But if you do use anything, STOP NOW. Or at least cut back majorly. Because they're a crutch. You can use them to cut loose and disinhibit. But that will only further stunt your leisure skills. It will keep you feeling the way you do now forever. So no more. Not till your life is fun and meaningful without it.
That was the easy part. Now the hard part.
Start looking for opportunities for fun, learning and recreation. Sign up for a class -- fitness, arts, or whatever. Register as a free agent for a city sports league. Try out for a play at your community theater. Volunteer at the humane society (or somewhere else, if you're not into dogs). Buy a Groupon for climbing classes or dance lessons. Go to that weird little museum you've never been to before -- it could be really interesting!
Plan a party. It could be just for you and a few good friends, or it could be bigger. Think very carefully about the kind of party you'd like to have. Maybe it could be a beach bonfire. Or pizza and karaoke. Or something crazy! Maybe you want to dig a big hole in the snow and have an igloo party -- I don't know! Pick something that requires creativity and effort on your part. So not something where people stand around and talk. AND NO DRUGS OR ALCOHOL. This isn't an exercise in disinhibition. It's an exercise in thrill and experience seeking.
Do something bad. Like, just a little illegal. Or maybe something you don't normally have the balls to do. Like, order a pizza and say you have a coupon you don't really have. Or sneak into a hot tub at a fancy hotel. The specifics don't matter. Just do it. Push your own boundaries a little Be creative.
Buy someone you love a present. One they'll absolutely love. For $10 or less. Seriously. Not a penny more. This is about thought, not cost. So it has to be a really, really good present. Think about the recipient very carefully. What do they want? What do they need? What don't they even know they want? What would make them smile the most?
These are four things you can do to get the ball rolling. Once you've got a little momentum, keep it going. Plan a road trip. Or don't plan one and just wing it. You can totally do it. It's not too late. It's really just the beginning.
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