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The UnCollege Blog

Don’t Try to “Beat” the School System—Transcend It

By Matthew Manning

“You’ve be absent a lot this year. Nineteen times. You’re aware that if you miss one more day, you lose credit for the year, right?”

I was aware. I could not have been more aware. I’d diligently monitored this.

The second half of my junior year I decided to skip Tuesdays.

I told a friend about this. He announced it to the class. Travelling along the grapevine that is teacher’s lounge gossip, I was now being interrogated at the main office.

Surprisingly, there was zero anxiety during this exchange. I’d leapfrogged any kind nervousness and only felt jubilation. I was proud of myself—laughing in the face of the administrator, the school, and the universe.

I talked my way out of it. It felt like I’d won.

I disliked school in a big way. The response was obvious: Try to circumvent the system by doing as little work as possible—while still maintaining good grades.

But amidst the napping, The Legend of Zelda playing, and the Tuesday skipping, I didn’t learn much of anything.

I went through most of high school like this.

A New Mindset

“During my last year in college I discovered that I was picking up on the mannerisms of Akim Tamiroff, the only useful thing, in fact, that I learned in the entire four years.”

—Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

Chances are, if you read this site, you’re frustrated with school.

When you have dissatisfaction whirling around inside of you, it’s your default setting to try and outsmart the system. Scheming and avoiding—all the while getting away with it—makes you feel victorious against the oppression.

But there’s a catch.

By attempting to sneak around all the hurdles school puts in front of you, you’re still running the wrong race.

You’re still a student—and a pretty terrible one at that.

Instead of trying to break their rules, you should be making your own.

Excel in school, but compartmentalize it into a corner of your life. Then transcend it with exploration into your work—building skills that make you feel strong, that make you come alive.

It took me a while to come to this realization.

The epiphany was catalyzed by another scheme—a senior year schedule that, with the help of online classes, ended at 10:15 AM.

Emptiness. It was uncomfortable.

But born out of this was personal writing, the discovery of programming, and reinvigorated piano playing. My Amazon wish list—a great way to store book recommendations—grew bigger than my Netflix queue.

Don’t think that you need this ridiculous amount of free time to transcend the school system. You can always make time.

Some practical advice:

  • Ruthlessly under schedule by cutting out all the non-essentials. Quit and explore. Eventually get some focus.

  • Complete all of your assigned work as soon as you can. Putting it off will clog up your mental ram and diminish your ability to pursue the extracurricular you care about.

  • Always be working on a side-project.

You can read Cal Newport’s book How to Be a High School Superstar for more on this strategy. Don’t let the title put you off—it’s a book that belongs in the “life” section of your bookshelf.

Your Secret Project

“Find a happy person, and you will find a project.” —Sonja Lyubomirsky

Most of us don’t take action.

Since our natural impulse is to beat the system instead of transcend it, a waterfall of excuse pours from our mouths whenever we have to put in work. The most common barrier students have regarding side-projects: “I just don’t have the time!”

Oh, the resistance, and how it makes us lie to ourselves.

We all have time. It’s about priorities. Even if we refer to ourselves as hackademics during our inner monologues, we’re nothing without action.

So here’s the call: Stop trying to circumvent your assigned work. Compartmentalize it. Do it well. Then take the next couple of months to write a novel, improve your networking, or learn to code.

Work on one at a time. Start slow.

Consistency is more important than the initial frenzied excitement that electrifies your skin. You’ll hit the dip—get sad and frustrated and quit.

Try working on this side project for 20 minutes a day. Then scale it.


I don’t know where you are with your education. Maybe you’re on the verge of dropping out.

I can only hope that you transcend your schoolwork—instead of trying to “beat the system” out of contempt or frustration or boredom. It’s a losing game.

Play your own.