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Men who were brilliant in school but didn’t quite make it in their career, how do you deal with it?

I happen to be one of those men and its growing on me and I feel like a failure more and more everyday.

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  1. Schooling only gives you part of what you need to be successful. Networking, ability to work with others “soft skills” and all that are also important. But it’s also important to know it’s not too late. Just because you’re out of school doesn’t mean you can’t still learn and grow.

  2. You come to understand that it’s the unrealized expectations at the source of all these negative feelings. If you had been less intelligent, not achieved the grades you were achieving, or had some other impairment that removed those expectations before they began to develop, these negative feelings would not exist to the extent they do.

    Had these expectations never developed at all, there would be no failure. It’s therefore relative. So we have to ask, what is the reason we come to expect things? Part of it stems from a sense of fair and unfair, right and wrong, moral perspective. The more we invest in something, the more our sense of fairness is tied to succeeding. We feel we deserve it. We earned it. We invest all of this effort just to fail? That doesn’t appeal to our sense of fairness at all. Our sense of fairness creates an expectation.

    Part of it stems from our external identity. We’re aware of the external expectations we create in others while working toward this goal. When we fail to meet these expectations, we’re also aware we failed to meet the expectations of others. We’re aware that others will likely see us as failures, even if they don’t outright say it. Even if they try to be understanding and empathetic. We’re still aware that even then, this comes across as pity or rationalizing the failure. Compare this with success, where they would be congratulatory and impressed. We know that nobody is impressed with our failure to meet expectations.

    The third is our own primal nature. The need to outcompete others. Even if we don’t physically need to outcompete others for basic survival needs, that instinct still exists. Even if nobody expected anything of us, and we had never invested anything to get the sense of “deserved” or “earned” expectation, we would still feel that sense of failure because we compare our achievements with the achievements of others, even those we deem less capable than ourselves, and judge their ability to outcompete us as a reflection of our own failing.

    When you add them all together, even if the definition of success and failure change, even if expectations of what to achieve change with availability of resource, technology, etc., we still have expectations that become unescapable. Since expectations aren’t guaranteed, there is always some risk of failure. Which means eventually somebody has to fail.


    But here’s the thing. All I’ve been talking about here is the roots of these expectations. What I haven’t brought up is why they matter.

    Why do we pin so much on fairness, what we “earned”, what we “deserve”? It’s entitlement. Because of X, I am owed Y. Very rarely is that true from a cause and effect standpoint. If it were cause and effect, it would be guaranteed. X happened therefore Y will result. That isn’t the case though, so we’re relying on entitlement to bridge the divide. “Despite cause and effect not producing outcome Y, I still deserve it.” If that entitlement didn’t exist, it would be much harder to convince people to invest significant personal resources into things that aren’t guaranteed. We are therefore pushed and taught this moral construct, this expectation, despite the potential damage it can do when violated, for the betterment of society as a whole.

    In other words, society knows some of us will fail, that sense of entitlement it created will be violated, and some of us will end up pretty fucked up and bitter over it. It’s okay with that because it does more good than harm for society as a whole. More people will be more productive than they otherwise would have been, and they will offset the people who fail, spiral downwards, and self destruct. The greater good.

    Why do we care about our external image? Pride and ego. Our failure in the eyes of others has no bearing in our physical survival. We don’t die from embarrassment. We can exist without the praise of others. But if we dig deeper and ask why that pride and ego has such a grip over us, it leads us right into our third part, our very nature.

    We care about what others think for the same reason we want to outcompete others. It was a survival advantage and ensured a higher likelihood of reproduction. Social standing means a higher likelihood of meeting all the key components for living things to keep being living things. Avoid dying, secure resources, reproduce, rinse and repeat. All of it ties back into that little hamster wheel we’ve been running since the dawn of living things. Society was doing it as a whole in the first part, we do it indirectly in the second part, and we feel the very basic pull of it in the third part.


    Which means, as long as you accept that’s all there is to us, living things that exist exclusively to perpetuate “living”, then there is no real way to “deal” with it. If you accept that’s all there is to us, then you accept you’re a failure, and that success/failure paradigm is the only truth that exists beyond cause and effect. There is nothing more. To “deal” with it is to continue existing until you die or find a different method to run the hamster wheel that isn’t deemed a failure.

    The alternative is to believe there is something else other than being living things that exist exclusively to perpetuate “living”. The irony being many people believe they do that while actively living in the success/failure paradigm. Many people look to religion for that, which also ends up finding a way to loop them back into the success/failure paradigm. They look to religion for some higher meaning beyond “existing exclusively to perpetuate living”, only to find themselves in religious systems that rigidly define moral frameworks that dictate success and failure, with an emphasis toward the elevation of society and future generations success/survival. In other words, even when people actively look for an alternative to the hamster wheel, they often end up inventing another hamster wheel that produces identical outcomes.

    That makes the alternative pretty difficult to engage in. Finding a way of existing unconcerned with “living”. An existence that isn’t hyper focused on the future of humanity, reproduction, outcompeting the person living next door, or some definition of success that only serves to perpetuate those things. What is left when those things are peeled away? You figure that one out and you’ve found your way to deal with failure in a way that isn’t predicated on an identical version of success in a different packaging.

  3. I have an A.A., A.S., B.A., M.A. and a J.D.

    While I was in Law School (the J.D.) a sheriff’s deputy ran into the back of my car going 55 mph. It gave me a degenerative spinal cord injury. I practiced for about 10 years and then had to stop. Now I putz around the house.

    Every day is a challenge. Sometimes I go around the yard and do little things. Sometimes I stay inside because of the pain.

    It really makes me think I wasted so many hours by working on those degrees. But what can I do?

  4. I was great in school (1600 SATs, went to college at 16) and after putzing around in my 20s spent 20 years mostly phoning it in at a job I didn’t have much enthusiasm for (software QA).
    But from my perspective there’s nothing to ‘deal with’. I didn’t try to be super successful, so I wasn’t. I paid my bills, raised my kids, had enough spare time to pursue various hobbies … yes, other people expected more from me, but I never had the ambition, and I’m OK with that.

  5. You can not make it in your career for a large number of options.

    It’s also the universe telling you to put your efforts elsewhere.

    The first funeral I attended, ever, was a classmate who excelled massively in high school – genius brain, top of the class at math, always got 103%-105% in math tests (because he also got the bonus questions). Graduated in the middle of a brutal recession where “no white males need apply, because cutbacks and diversity hire requirements”.

    He took all the pills he could find, and swallowed them. His sister found him. She was positively inconsolable. It was my first very very uncomfortable encounter with death because I was unaware of all the feelings it brought out in people.

    First corpse I ever saw, and he was young looking even for his mid 20s. Open casket. It was like looking at a 15 year old Matthew Waterhouse.

    I’ll never forget how in tears his father was that two of his high school classmates saw the obituary, took the day off, and attended, respectfully.

    All I can say is this. Had he waited three or four years, he’d have probably fucking OWNED the dot com revolution.

  6. Depends on the bar you yourself are trying to live up to. What is making it? If you are looking at your former contemporaries as a gauge on where you should be, STOP. Comparison is the enemy of content.

    I had a hard time with this in my mid 20’s, I was one of the smartest people in my class, but chose a shitty major…I grinded it out in the corporate world with some success but nothing awe inspiring. I went back to school got a comp sci degree and now I’m off to the races. I could have stayed on my old career path, and would have had a comfortable life…home ownership, a vacation once or twice a year, a 30k car, and thats nothing to be ashamed of.

    Don’t let social media make you feel like you need an S550 benz, a pool, and a monthly trip to a foreign country to “make it”. In fact people who post that stuff all the time are likely insecure, less happy than they seem, and have poor taste. I rarely post my success or material things because I know it would be just to show people how nice I have it…most secure people wouldn’t want or need to do this…plus why would you want to make your friends feel bad in comparison.

    If you are smart and don’t have any serious personal issues(prison record, drug addiction, tons of debt, etc…) your options to make it in this world are limitless…become a dental assistant, get into real estate, learn to code…use that above average brain to get to the bag, or accept that the bag isn’t for you.


    Meditate, do yoga, take shrooms.

  7. Honestly, I wasn’t brilliant at all in school in any traditional way but I did work hard in it (16h days stretch at a time) only to find my career sucked at the time (video game programmer 15 years ago) because it was the same long hours that didn’t win any kudos because everyone around me was doing the same rat race. That was a miserable decade going the route I was told was the road to happiness.

    I switched work to something physical, did that 5 years (honestly, when hours considered more money without the schooling), before starting a business and became such a different person than I was fresh out of school mentally, simply because my priorities shifted. Before 25, you couldn’t get me out of the house/indoors. Now, you couldn’t keep me in, I even go hiking while it rains purposely.

    Divorce yourself from the idea you are your career. In most cases, you’d just be another cog in the machine unless you are that rare superstar – and none of us have control over that kinda thing. It’s kinda set up as a lottery, a few winners and a lotta “losers” on the way. You’re feeding a system and that’s how systems are.

    If you have drive and think even a bit and aren’t afraid to fail on the way, you can exist outside the established system and find a niche to exploit. But you also have to explore what your real dreams are versus what’s been fed to you over the years.

  8. I was first in my class graduating from college bro… I feel you. Late in my career now, I’ve done ok, not the most successful but I’ve had some successes. I have a lot to share on this subject…

    First, define for yourself what “success” and “failure” mean for you. Money? Title? Trustworthiness? Respect? Loved? Good parent/brother/son? Who have you helped? By career title, I’m not as successful as I would have liked, and that’s partly due to choices I made and partly luck outside my control. On other measures, ones that matter more to me & I worked hardest at, I am very successful.

    Career success takes a very different skill set than getting good grades in a classroom. In my experience, it’s actually pretty rare that the “smartest” students ended up having the most career included. You’re in a totally different world now, and it’s adapt or decline.

    Success at work is driven mostly by relationships. People say it’s not what you know but who… that’s not quite right. It’s more who is familiar with you, trusts you, and likes working with you. I’ve seen people with only marginal competence get opportunities because they networked better than their more capable coworkers. A lot. I didn’t get that in my 20’s and I started networking late. I think I might have gotten a lot farther if I had started sooner. (The concept of dollar-cost averaging… start investing young and keep investing steady over time, applies to a lot more than money.)

    Invest effort in networking and network strategically. What do you want to do, and who would be a good ally in that? The job you want… who’s in that job or the boss of that job who can give you advice on how to get there? Reach out, say you’d like a better connection or you’d like mentorship, get together for lunch/coffee. (Don’t be afraid to ask… most people are thrilled to be asked.) If they give advice, follow it, and go back and say thanks and let them know how it worked out. (Even if it didn’t work, what did you learn and what would they try next?) Build relationships.

    Your ability to be a great student still gives you a competitive advantage if you use it right. Keep learning! Read up on trends & innovations, understand business in general and YOUR businesses especially (income, expenses, profit drivers, its customers and competitors, etc). Any learning opportunities or tuition reimbursement your employer offers, take full advantage of them. Join a professional society for your job/industry. Being a forever student, always curious, relentlessly in learning-and-growth-mode, will make you better-informed as well as better-connected.

    Take initiative. Do your own SWOT analysis, look for things in your team that aren’t working or could work better. Do those things if you don’t need to ask permission, or propose your ideas to the boss whose support you need to do them. Ambition gets noticed.

    This may surprise you but VOLUNTEER outside of work for a cause you care about. This will broaden your perspective, teach you new skills, give you something to feel good about, and up-level you as a person in ways you may not imagine. Also incidentally, it expands your network and looks good on your resume (not the real reason to volunteer, but good side-benefits).

    Finally and most important… separate *having* a failure from *being* a failure. We all have failures. Resilience is ultimate. Come back stronger, keep pushing. Learn from each experience, dust yourself off, and choose to either try again smarter or try something else entirely. Also know that your worth is not diminished based on someone else’s inability to see it. You’re only a failure if you give up on yourself.

  9. Its all in your head, you are if you say you are. Failing is part of the learning experience, that is, if you choose to learn from it. School means jack shit if you cant use it in the real world. With that said, go and work on your career path and plan out what you want and find out how to get there by researching. Learning isnt over yet.

    Grind it out, put in your time, and earn it. Good luck.

  10. School and work are two very different environments. I highly recommend you read “Mindset. The New Psychology of Success” by Carol Dweck. Made me understand a lot about my self images and how they make me react to certan situations and environments.

  11. I after school I did some work in my field and absolutely hated it. I barely knew anyone so finding consistent work was difficult, and the romantic creativity I thought I’d be surrounded by was instead boring bureaucracy. Eventually steady work won out and I ended up in a completely different industry. Also, most of what I learned in school was rendered obsolete after like a year.

  12. I was the best in my high school class, best during undergrad, and got a PhD from a prestigious university. I made the mistake of going into science and I am still trying to recover from it.

  13. It’s not that I have not made it but that I am in a room with all the other people who made it. I grew up as the big fish in a small pond and it was hard to adjust to being a fish in a pond. The good news is I work with great people who make me feel welcome and that has really helped me realise there is more to life than being the best.

  14. I attended a top 15 college in the US but only made about $20K per year for the first 4-5 years post-grad lol. Luckily I found a career more recently, teaching, that makes better pay and is something that I enjoy. I’ve been doing that now for almost a whole school year. You have to find a career that you like that pays well that you’re good at.

    Also, if you have friends from that school on your social media, I would suggest hiding them or getting off social media. I had friends who were making six figures right out of graduation.

  15. I wouldn’t say I was brilliant but got a 4.1 GPA in high school and got into a top 10 us college. I’ve done pretty shitty in college academically and I’ll only make like ~70k coming out while friends who had way better grades are making like 150k+ coming out. I know objectively my situation isn’t too bad but comparison really is the thief of joy especially going to a really great school where people have already founded multi million dollar companies in their 20s

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