The other day, I was talking to a friend of mine who’s immersed in academia. She’s halfway through a 7-year Masters and PhD program and working as a teacher’s assistant in the midst of it. I admire her commitment, and ended up telling her a bit about my own experience with academia… and why I got out.
The Chronic Dropout with the 4.0
I don’t want to say I chose the easy classes — that’s not fair. I chose the classes that interested me. The ones that matched my skills. Linguistics, Mandarin Chinese, Logic, Religious Studies, any kind of Writing… these were things I had some connection to, and wanted to learn more about. But across the 6 schools I attended as I bounced around the country, I rarely found myself feeling more engaged than a teacher’s assistant would, sitting in the back of a classroom, grading papers (and that’s a pretty fair analogy, since it’s what I set myself up to be treated like most of the time, anyway). Whether it was in helping everyone else on their homework or providing the Example Paper that the professor could use as a model, I wasn’t there to be a student. I was there to be fulfill some obligation to the world that I couldn’t quite name. And for the first few years, I did it cheerfully.
My brain’s a quirky creature. It’s exceptional in some areas, pathetic in others. I grasp new concepts quickly and I can memorize things well for tests. I seem to understand structures and logic better than most people. I listen attentively, and I write clearly. But here’s the catch: I’m terrible at reading. My mind wanders too much to stay on a page unless I’m focusing very, very hard.
It just happened to work out that the listening, logic, and writing parts of my brain are exceptional enough that throughout high school and college, nobody seemed to notice that, no really, I can’t read. I survived all my social studies and literature classes by scanning a few chapters, listening well in lectures, and choosing paper topics that only required me to analyze small portions of the text. I got A’s every time, and was treated like one of the best students. Every time.
This, coupled with sheer boredom, is probably why I stopped respecting academia. How does someone end up getting straight A’s at a prestigious liberal arts school without being able to get through a single book?
I attended six schools, I’m about 4 classes short of a degree, and up until my last semester (which I didn’t complete), I had a 4.0 GPA. I am a chronic college dropout, and I have no desire to keep going. I’m done.
Will I Eventually Give In?
But that’s not what I tell my family. My official line is that I dropped out because it stopped mattering to me. And I’ll go back if it starts to matter again.
It will matter again if I ever want to…
A) go to grad school, or
B) climb a career ladder in any environment that requires a degree.
Right now, “A” is unattractive because school is still school — it still tries to “challenge” the parts of my brain that could ice skate circles around my own teachers, and devalues the kinds of work that I find engaging. Sure, I could probably find a program that’s tailored to my learning style if I looked hard enough. And I could probably put up with it if I discovered that grad school was absolutely critical for the dream career I haven’t realized I need to have yet. Those are fair possibilities. This door isn’t fully closed.
But “B” also doesn’t seem to be an issue. Magically, I ended up in Silicon Valley where no one seems to care about anyone’s educational background — they just want to know if someone is smart, skilled, trustworthy, and willing to live like a workaholic. I can swing all of those just fine. And as a major bonus, the work is lucrative and fun. My brain loves this stuff!
I do also realize that this little industry I’m in is volatile, fast-changing and prone to bubble bursts. I have no job security. Hell, I don’t even have a job. For the last 5 years, my work has been to do what I love really loudly, meet lots of people, and hope that some of them offer me money to do what I love for them. So far, despite levels of uncertainty that would make a lot of people turn to pharmaceuticals, it works. About half my work is well-paid, and the other half is me volunteering for myself. And I love it.
I’ve been offered real jobs, and I decline them. I don’t think they can make my brain as happy as it is when I’m on my own, able to build and explore whatever I want. I’ve also met a number of freelancers who are just waiting for the perfect stable job to come along. Most people in stable jobs, though, it seems are just dreaming about ways to escape that rat race and be their own bosses. “The grass is always greener…”
Screw that. My lawn is gorgeous.
“You Should Be More Careful…”
And this post is really a very long, naval-gazing build-up to my annual reminder to everyone I know to please stop whatever you’re doing, sit down, and reflect for a minute on this comic strip by xkcd:
Pass it on. Print it out. Post it on your wall.
I Want to Say It as Clearly as I Can
Am I one of the lucky ones? Absolutely. I stepped out of a set of systems that weren’t working for me without losing competitive earning power in one of the most affluent cities in the world. Am I privileged? Ridiculously so. I didn’t get to choose this peculiar brain I have, or my supportive family of independent business owners, or my skin color, or my country, or the fact that I came of age when the Internet was just starting to go mainstream. Did I risk great loss, face life-threatening demons, and work my butt off to get here? Yes, I did, but probably only because I saw no other reasonable option. Am I done yet? Am I safe? Is the hard part over? Hell no. I’m 26 years old. I’m just getting started.
But the thing I’ve learned — the thing I want to share, the reason I’m so insistent that everyone print out this comic and paste it to their walls — is that we all have work to do, and it’s not the work that someone else is asking of us. Yes, we have to work the system to survive and make a living, but we have more hours than that in the day, and we have plenty of agency over our lives.
The infinite possibilities each day holds should stagger the mind. The sheer number of experiences I could have is uncountable, breathtaking, and I’m sitting here refreshing my inbox… We act like if we just get through today, tomorrow our dreams will come back to us.
And no, I don’t have all the answers. I don’t know how to jolt myself into seeing what each moment could become. But I do know one thing: the solution doesn’t involve watering down my every little idea and creative impulse for the sake of some day easing my fit into a mold. It doesn’t involve tempering my life to better fit someone’s expectations. It doesn’t involve constantly holding back for fear of shaking things up.
This is very important, so I want to say it as clearly as I can:
FUCK. THAT. SHIT.