I was your “textbook” high-achieving student.
I was enrolled at an Ivy League university that I had spent the last half-decade carefully preparing myself to attend by getting the best grades I could, acing the SATs, leading different extracurriculars, and generally being “well-rounded.”
At school, I landed a prestigious research fellowship, had great grades, and was active in several clubs on campus, even sitting on a national executive board for one.
In short, I was essentially the last person you would expect to drop out. But I couldn’t be happier that I did.
I felt an itch that something wasn’t right during the beginning of my sophomore year. I had just finished working with a philosopher on campus to build a majors-only seminar for the spring, was leading academic programs development for a DC-based nonprofit, and felt intensely bored.
I had the desire to build. I had always performed well in academia because I thought college would lead me to a place where I could really build, but that wasn’t the case. On the academic side, research and development was mostly politics and moving around and rehashing research somebody else had done already. Rarely would new, groundbreaking developments come out of humanities research -- and when it did, it was quickly and thoroughly discredited by established researchers.
The other common option for non-techies at elite universities is to go into finance. It’s not much better. A continuation of the rat race mentality of college admissions, On Campus Recruiting for finance and consulting jobs leads students to pack their resumes with as much fluff as possible, spending little time actually devoted to pursuits they want to become experts in or with which they can fall in love.
Friends and acquaintances who came to college with the dreams of starting their own company, writing a book, or leading a world-changing venture were now vying for the best internships on Wall Street or in Boston so they could stay competitive.
In his Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, Peter Thiel captured this perfectly:
Elite students climb confidently until they reach a level of competition sufficiently intense to beat their dreams out of them. Higher education is the place where people who had big plans in high school get stuck in fierce rivalries with equally smart peers over conventional careers like management consulting and investment banking.
I needed a breath of fresh air.
I hit up a friend and sort-of mentor of mine who was launching a startup devoted to changing how we educate ourselves and asked him if I could work for him. He didn’t have to pay me -- I just wanted the opportunity to build something other than a resume. I started immediately doing a little bit of everything (as you do in an early-stage startup). I would represent at conferences, speak about the product, build a little of the student portal, put together email newsletters, manage social media -- it didn’t matter what it was, at least I was building.
Things were taking off and I couldn’t split my time as easily. I decided to take a leave of absence to go work full-time on the startup. I had every intention on returning to school and finishing my degree -- “why wouldn’t I? It’s only two more years. I just want to work on this and get some experience doing so,” is what I told myself and others when asked.
After several months of delving in head-first to the intense world of running a startup, I noticed something happening. I found myself less anxious about how others would perceive my resume, my credentials, and my activities and more conscious of what I was creating. I started to experience flow on a regular basis. I recalled the creative play of being a kid and felt like I was regularly experiencing that for the first time in years. I was taking risks with potential payoffs, too, when before I was used to hedging my bets, making sure all my backups worked out, and having my attention so split over many areas that I became a jack of all trades, master of none. I was happier than ever -- being able to engage in creative work for its own sake and not for the sake of impressing a college admissions officer or an HR manager. In short, I was becoming deschooled.
I walked away from an opportunity that I had been culling myself for years to achieve and one that most people would (and do) tell me I am crazy for “throwing away.” Why? Because I realized that there is more than college for an ambitious young person. You learn more and unleash more potential by being thrown into the fire of freedom and responsibility at an age when you have the fewest legal (e.g., mortgage, student loan debt) and family (e.g., wife, kids) obligations than you ever will have again.
Deschooling myself has brought more focus, ingenuity, and play to my life than any set of classes or programs ever has. Most people who go to college right after high school-- even the best students who think they have good reasons -- don’t have great reasons besides “it’s just what you do” when you are a good student with high ambitions. Most of the arguments presented to us aren’t very good and are based almost entirely on convention.
There are ways to get started on deschooling yourself and opting out of college. You can drop into a startup team. You can join a program, like Gap Year or Praxis, that gives you the structure for taking control of your education and your professional life. You can apply for Thiel Fellowship (something UnCollege’s Founder Dale Stephens did and I wish I had done) the Thiel Summit. If you have a college fund, you can use it to fund a project or travel. If not, you can still do these things, you’ll just be forced to think more creatively.
In retrospect, my only regret is that I didn’t leave college earlier. There’s a whole world of open systems, interesting people, and projects to be built. Whatever you do, get started doing something.