When people ask about my time out of school, I give them an honest answer:
The years I spent out of the classroom were some of the most learning-intensive of my life.
Those years were, in equal parts, invigorating and frustrating, and pushed every part of me to be better. It was an all-hands-on-deck learning experience, where it felt as though my mind was constantly engaged in solving a problem, making a plan, and trying to steer the ship in the right direction. This was the real world and the experience was intoxicating.
The first thing I didn’t know when I dropped out is exactly how much I would learn, and the countless forms it would take.
I was eighteen when I left school. At that time I knew what now feels like very little. In fact, part of the reason I left school is because I shouldn’t have been making the decision to move and invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in the first place. I had too little grasp on who I was and what I needed from my learning to sign on the college dotted line, and that’s what leaving school gave me. For the first time, I had to develop self-confidence and self-agency. Nothing was dictated for me. Nobody was telling me what to do, or what path I should have been on. Frankly, I had no idea what I was capable of doing until I was ACTUALLY DOING IT. Some people develop who they are in the classroom, but I didn’t begin to understand myself as a person until I stepped outside it. At first, it felt like a crash course in my greatest weaknesses—I wasn’t exceptionally talented, nervousness made me second guess opportunities a little too often, and self-doubt kept me from pursuing things. I had to get to the root of the weakness in order to establish the strengths. It wasn’t a coincidence that as I gained confidence and articulated what I wanted, doors began opening. Now, I know that I’m better served (and do better work) in hands-on environments, and that I have a hard time doing work I don’t feel passionate about. I know that the impact something I have helped create matters far more to me than a grade does—but it took removing grades from the equation to understand that.
I knew (well, I hoped) that my time spent out of school would be spent gaining experience, so I expected to learn about the resume-things…including how to put together a resume. I anticipated learning to edit, pitch, and interview, how to work as a team member, and understand the intricacies of my industry. Yet, I honestly didn’t expect to learn much about me, as a person. I think we leave that out of traditional education, too: Somehow, we’ve justified separating a person’s knowledge from who they are. We focus on educating the parts that hit the usual benchmarks of academic achievement, like test scores, but we tend to ignore that there’s an entire human being attached to the arm that’s scribbling in bubbles with a number-two pencil.
Before I left school, I logically knew that education should benefit the whole person in some way. It should help you develop the skills you need for a career, and it should enable you to expand your realm of thought. Learning should be a full-person endeavor, not solely an academic one. However, I didn’t know how much learning could shape the course of your life before I left school.
So, while I certainly know how to do more things—and know how to do them better—now versus when I first left school, the biggest thing I learned is about learning itself. When you’re in school, it is easy to sit behind your desk and operate on autopilot, checking the boxes of good grades and participating just enough to get by. What I know now is that there is so much more to learning than that, and that, at its best, learning should help you grow as a person even more than it helps develop you as a student.
We’ll be students for a short period of our lives. We’ll be learners forever.
I know now that very few things in life are final: You can drop out, you can go back to school, you can work to shape your own education while you’re in school. In school, one bad grade felt like the end of the world, and not knowing exactly what you wanted to major in (and subsequently, to have a career in) ran paramount to failure. What I know now is that learning is a process, not just a means to an end, and that how you learn and what you learn is far greater than any singular degree or grade. We’re bigger than just what we know, because we always have the capacity to learn more. Learning doesn’t stop. It took being in the trenches with it, sans syllabus and instructions, for me to understand that learning is what builds our lives.