Mindy Kaling’s Advice to Teens: Please Don’t Peak in High School

Almost no one who was a big star in high school is a big star later in life, Mindy Kaling observes. Here's more of her heartfelt, hard-won advice.

high school trophies
Dan Witners for Reader’s Digest

Sometimes teenage girls ask me for advice about what they should be doing if they want a career like mine one day. There are basically three ways to get where I am: (1) learn a provocative dance and put it on YouTube; (2) persuade your parents to move to Orlando and homeschool you until you get cast on a kids’ show; or (3) do what I did, which is stay in school and be a respectful and hardworking wallflower and go to an accredited non-online university.

Teenage girls, please don’t worry about being super popular in high school or being the best actress or the best athlete. Not only do people not care about any of that the second you graduate, but when you get older, if you reference your successes in high school too much, it makes you look kind of pitiful, like some babbling Tennessee Williams character with nothing going on in her current life. What I’ve noticed is that almost no one who was a big star in high school is a big star later in life. For us overlooked kids, it’s so wonderfully fair.

I was never the lead in the play. I don’t think I went to a single party with alcohol at it. My parents didn’t let me do social things on weeknights, because they were for homework—and maybe an episode of The X-Files if I was being good (The X-Files was on Friday night), and on extremely rare occasions, I could watch Seinfeld (Thursday, a school night), if I had aced my PSATs or something.

It is easy to freak out as a sensitive teenager. I always felt I was missing out because of how the high school experience was dramatized in TV and song. For every realistic My So-Called Life, there were ten Party of Fives or 90210s, where a twentysomething Luke Perry was supposed to be just a typical guy at your high school. If Luke Perry had gone to my high school, everybody would have thought, What’s the deal with this brooding greaser? Is he a narc? But that’s who Hollywood put forth as “just a dude at your high school.”

In the genre of “making you feel like you’re not having an awesome American high school experience,” the worst offender is a song: John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Jack & Diane.” It’s one of those songs that everyone knows all the words to without ever having chosen to learn them. I’ve seen people get incredibly pumped when this song comes on; apparently it is an anthem of some people’s youth. Across America, there are high school couples who strive to be like Jack and Diane from that song. Just hangin’ out after school, makin’ out at the Tastee Freez, sneakin’ beers, without a care in the world. Just two popular, idle, all-American kids, having a blast.

As it is, I find “Jack & Diane” a little disgusting. A child ofimmigrant professionals, I can’t help but notice the frivolity of it. Why are they not home doing homework? Why aren’t they setting the table for dinner? Who allows kids to hang out in parking lots? Isn’t that loitering?

I wish there were a song called “Nguyen & Ari” about a hardworking Vietnamese girl who helps her parents with the franchised Holiday Inn they run and does homework in the lobby, and Ari, a hardworking Jewish boy who does volunteer work at his grandma’s old-age home. They meet at Princeton Review. They study together for the SATs and AP courses, and then, after months of studying and mountains of flashcards, they kiss chastely upon hearing that they both got into their top college choices. This is a song teens need to inadvertently memorize. This is why it’s so hard to take other people’s advice. 

In high school, I had fun in my academic clubs; watching movies with my friends; learning Latin; having unrequited crushes on guys who didn’t know me; and yes, hanging out with my family. I liked hanging out with my family! Later, when you’re grown up, you realize you never get to hang out with your family. You pretty much have only 18 years to spend with them full-time, and that’s it. So, yeah, it all added up to a happy, memorable time. Even though I was never a star.

The chorus of “Jack & Diane” is: “Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of livin’ is gone.”

Are you kidding me? The thrill of living was high school? Come on, Mr. Cougar Mellencamp. Get a life.

Mindy Kaling is a comedian, writer, producer, and actress, who is best known for being the creator and star of the TV sitcom The Mindy Project.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, copyright © 2011 by Mindy Kaling, is published by Three Rivers Press, an Imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., randomhouse.com.

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Mindy Kaling
Mindy Kaling is a comedian, writer, producer, and actress, who is best known for being the creator and star of the TV sitcom The Mindy Project.